Whispers

Tuesday, June 2, 2020 by Elizabeth Pagano

Council to hold emergency meeting

Austin City Council members have called for an emergency meeting this Thursday, June 4, at 3 p.m. The meeting will address demands for police reform and concerns about Austin Police Department’s response to recent protests demanding justice for the deaths of George Floyd, Mike Ramos, and other black Americans killed by police. Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison released a statement Monday about the protests and upcoming meeting that read, in part, “I have joined my colleagues in calling for an emergency session of City Council this week to build upon the work that we have already started to root out racism in our police department and to create a truly just and truly equitable system that ensures public safety for the entire community. … When talking about meaningful change, all options should be on the table. That means we should look at accountability measures, training policies, crowd control tactics, how we equip our officers, community policing, staffing, and budgets. … The time for talk is over. We hear the collective voice of agony calling for justice and we are ready to respond.” Currently the emergency meeting agenda contains only a single item – a “briefing on protests in the city, including protocol and practices employed.” City Council does not normally take public comment on briefings. Since Council is continuing to meet remotely, those wishing to speak on agenda items must sign up by noon on Wednesday and comment via telephone. Instructions for that process can be found here.


Tuesday, June 2, 2020 by Elizabeth Pagano

City budget survey open until July 1

A city spokesperson confirmed Monday that a survey asking Austinites to pick their city budget priorities has had its deadline extended to July 1. Residents can fill out the survey at AustinTexas.gov/Budget or by emailing BudgetQA@AustinTexas.gov. At the moment, City Council is scheduled to review that feedback in early July. Public hearings, which are another opportunity to provide feedback to Council members, will be held July 23 and July 30, with a budget adoption slated for Aug. 12.


Tuesday, June 2, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

Austin Energy assists thousands affected by Covid-19

Since April 9, Austin Energy has given 3,200 residential customers $897,000 in bill relief – nearly nine times the amount of financial assistance the utility typically affords through its Plus 1 Emergency Financial Support Program. The Plus 1 Program provides immediate help to customers who are having financial difficulties and are unable to pay their utility bills due to unexpected emergencies. “In just over a month, we have provided more assistance than any other month in the history of this program,” General Manager Jackie Sargent said at the June 1 meeting of the Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee. Since the beginning of the fiscal year, the utility has offered $1.94 million in bill relief to 7,000 customers. Vice President of Customer Care Jerry Galvan said, “The customers that have needed help have been able to get help very quickly through the process.” However, Council Member Alison Alter pointed out that not all eligible customers can benefit from the program; for instance, customers in multifamily units. Elaine Veselka, the vice president of customer account management, explained that when complexes share one meter instead of being individually metered, it can be a challenge to offer individual assistance. In such cases, she says, the energy utility is left with the task of determining how to make sure the right residents get the benefits. While Council members on the dais agreed that a long-term solution was needed to aid low-income customers using a shared meter, in the short term, Council Member Alter suggested purposefully targeting low-income residential complexes. “I just think that might be important relief that we could offer,” she said.


Tuesday, June 2, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

Decker Creek Power Station finally closing

The Decker Creek Power Station, which burns natural gas, has long been a target for retirement in order to help Austin lower its carbon emissions. After years of preparation, the power station is 150 days from closure. On June 1, Austin Energy issued a notice of suspension and its receipt has been acknowledged, according to the utility’s COO, Charles Dickerson. The energy generation facility will be retired Oct. 31, pending Electric Reliability Council of Texas approval. As part of the transition away from this power plant, several dozen employees will shift their jobs. “Those people will still be on the books,” Dickerson assured Council members at the June 1 meeting of the Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee. He said Austin Energy is continuing to offer online training modules and virtual career counseling opportunities for employees affected by the closure of the plant.


Monday, June 1, 2020 by Tai Moses

City extends stay-home order

On Friday, Mayor Steve Adler announced that he would be extending Austin’s Stay Home, Work Safe order until June 15. The extension continues most of the provisions from the prior city order, “including the mandates to stay at home except as specifically allowed, avoid gatherings, observe social distancing and wear face coverings.” The extension is consistent with the statewide order that continues the requirement to minimize social gatherings and in-person contact with people from other households. “With this extended order, the city is doing everything the law allows to keep our community as safe as possible, to give the governor’s reopening of the economy the greatest chance of succeeding and being sustained and to retain for our community the ability we each have as individuals to make choices that seek to prevent our hospitals from being overwhelmed,” Adler said. The latest statewide order allows the reopening of nonessential businesses such as “bars, rodeos, in-store retail, dine-in restaurant services, movie theaters, museums, libraries, shopping malls, golf courses, wedding venues, salons and barber shops, tanning salons, pools, gyms and more. Some are limited to certain occupancy levels. It remains unclear whether resulting new interactions will lead to a spike that would overwhelm hospitals,” said the city’s announcement. Local public health officials will continue to monitor the situation.


Monday, June 1, 2020 by Tai Moses

AISD encourages families to use P-EBT benefit

The state of Texas is providing more than $1 billion in pandemic food benefits to eligible families with kids who are missing out on school-provided meals because of school closures. The Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer Program, as it’s called, gives eligible families a one-time payment of $285 per child to buy groceries, similar to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The P-EBT card may be used like a debit card wherever SNAP food benefits are accepted. “This program is intended to provide food security for families, in addition to the free meals offered at district meal sites,” according to AISD, which is encouraging families to apply for the program. “P-EBT benefits are in addition to SNAP benefits, grab-and-go school meals and other nutrition resources. Receiving P-EBT will not affect a family’s ability to get other benefits.” Read the FAQ and find out how to apply.


Monday, June 1, 2020 by Tai Moses

Are you eligible for free Covid-19 testing?

The city is encouraging community members to fill out the public enrollment testing form to see if they’re eligible for a no-cost Covid-19 test. An online self-assessment is required first; eligibility will be determined by symptoms and risk factors. You may fill out the self-assessment for a family member, if necessary. There are no questions about immigration status and the test and assessment are free. A one-minute video explains the process (available in Spanish). Those who are approved for free testing may schedule an appointment at a drive-thru testing site. You must be in a vehicle to use the test site. Find more information here.


Monday, June 1, 2020 by Tai Moses

Help name this school

In case you haven’t used up all your ideas for new school names, AISD would like the community’s help naming yet another school. The new Blazier Relief School, which is scheduled to open in August, will provide overcrowding relief to Blazier Elementary. The district’s plan is for grades three through six to move into the new Blazier while the old Blazier will become the home for kindergarten through second grade. As the news release says, “This is a unique arrangement in Austin ISD with a strong partnership between the two campuses.” The district will be accepting name ideas via an online form through Friday, June 5. “The Campus Advisory Council, comprised of school personnel, parents and community members, will consider all eligible submissions and make a recommendation to the AISD Board of Trustees, who will make the final decision.” You can find more information about the do’s and don’ts of facility naming here.


Friday, May 29, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

County opens more parks to generate revenue

After two months of limited park access, things are beginning to open up. On the Friday before Memorial Day, the county opened seven additional parks, including several with boat ramp access. Charles Bergh, with the county parks division, told the Commissioners Court that these public recreation spaces are open with 50 percent reduced parking capacity in an attempt to maintain social distancing. However, the county was forced to close the newly opened Reimers Ranch, Pace Bend, Arkansas Bend and Mansfield Dam parks over the holiday weekend to prevent overcrowding. Despite the restricted access, Bergh told the commissioners these facilities are an important source of revenue generation for the county. Even with reduced capacity, he said, Travis County collected $5,000 in entrance fees last Saturday, and $6,000 last Sunday at Loop 360 Boat Ramp. “That should give you a flavor of the revenue that these parks can generate,” he told the commissioners. Bergh said that the initial reopening of additional parks is the first step in a phased reopening that will begin after June 15. More concrete plans addressing the reopening of athletic fields and beaches will be presented to the Commissioners Court following that date.


Friday, May 29, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

County keeps leave policies unchanged

On May 26, the Travis County Commissioners Court maintained the status quo for county employees by taking no action regarding leave exemptions for emergency responders and health care providers under the Family First Coronavirus Response Act. FFCRA provides employees with two weeks of paid sick time and 10 weeks of extended paid time to care for a child whose school or caregiver was impacted by Covid-19. Currently, the county provides this benefit to its employees in addition to its current leave policy. Under federal law, Travis County is able to exempt these employees from FFCRA coverage due to their essential function in the county. County staff recommended that essential employees remain entitled to the federal leave policy unless their respective departments require their presence on the job. After consulting with the legal department, commissioners elected to retain flexibility and made no recommendation to change county leave policies.


Friday, May 29, 2020 by Tai Moses

Lost your job? Ride the bus for free

Starting Monday, June 1, fares will be reinstated for all Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority services. However, the transit agency is extending its fare-free program through June for those experiencing unemployment during the pandemic, as long as they apply for a special Workforce Aid Pass. According to Capital Metro, “The new Workforce Aid Pass program will enable customers looking for work to use transit without worrying about the costs associated with a CapMetro pass. Anyone who is currently unemployed and has received a letter or email to receive unemployment benefits from the Texas Workforce Commission is eligible.” Find out how to obtain a Workforce Aid Pass here. The pass will be valid for the month of June.


Friday, May 29, 2020 by Tai Moses

Families, get your free produce box

The Parks and Recreation Department is partnering with Brighter Bites and DiMare Fresh to distribute boxes of fresh produce to families in Austin during the pandemic. Each box contains approximately 19 pounds of fresh vegetables and fruits and they are available on a first-come, first-served basis, while supplies last. Pick up your box each Friday, today through July 31 (no distribution Friday, July 4) at 9 a.m., Turner Roberts Recreation Center, 7201 Colony Loop Drive. Enter from Colony Loop Drive and follow the signs. Volunteers will load your box for you, or you may opt to follow the signs and walk over to pick up your own box.


Thursday, May 28, 2020 by Elizabeth Pagano

City announces $2.5M in grants for musicians and artists

The city’s Economic Development Department is opening two grant programs for local musicians and creatives, and yesterday released details on how individuals and organizations impacted by the pandemic can access $2.5 million in funds. The Austin Music Disaster Relief Fund will provide $1,000 grants to musicians for emergency needs and currently has $1.5 million in the fund. The Austin Creative Space Disaster Relief Program now has $1 million to provide $50,000 grants to organizations and artists “facing displacement and difficulty paying rent for their commercial creative spaces.” Artists seeking aid through the Austin Music Disaster Relief Fund can review their eligibility here. Eligible applicants can apply for grants beginning Monday, June 8, at 10 a.m., with grants to be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. According to a press release from the city, “These limited dollars are focused on the most vulnerable musicians in Austin, defined as those with two months or less in living expenses currently available. Those not eligible to apply are encouraged to connect with helpful resources and opportunities at ATXrecovers.com. Austin musicians who have already received a grant from the MusiCares Covid-19 Relief Fund are not eligible to apply.”

Organizations and artists may apply now through June 17 for the $50,000 Creative Space Disaster Relief grant, which can be applied to “unpaid commercial rent and to defray rent hikes, property acquisition costs, or other space-related needs such as facility improvements or relocation-related expenditures.” Grants will be evaluated by a grant review committee and announced the week of June 29. Interested parties can find a Rent Stipend Application and other space-related needs application online. The city will be holding a virtual information meeting about the grant program on Tuesday, June 9, from 3-4 p.m. The event is free and registration is here. Guidelines and eligibility requirements can be found at ATXrecovers.com or by emailing CreativeSpaceRelief@austintexas.gov or calling 512-974-7806.


Thursday, May 28, 2020 by Tai Moses

Conservancy publishes Pease Park slope failure survey

The results of the Pease Park slope failure survey are in: Of the 137 people who responded, 95 percent said their Pease Park experience has been negatively impacted by the landslide along Shoal Creek, while 86 percent said repairing the trail should be a top priority. The landslide, which took place two years ago this month, deposited a mass of soil, rocks and debris in Shoal Creek that obstructed the flow of water and damaged the popular trail. The city’s Watershed Protection Department is currently studying the slope failure and appraising possible solutions. So the Pease Park Conservancy asked the community for feedback on the issue with the aim of turning it into “a list of findings that will ultimately be shared with those who are integral to the solution,” according to a news release from the conservancy. View the rest of the survey results.


Wednesday, May 27, 2020 by Elizabeth Pagano

Council to meet Thursday, talk funding

City Council will hold a special called meeting this Thursday in order to dive into details of a “spending framework” for federal money, including $170 million in CARES Act funds. The conversation is a continuation of one that took place at Council’s last work session in response to a resolution asking the city to balance increased needs across most sectors with a number of competing priorities. (It’s complicated, and if you want an overview, read our story.) As Council is posted for discussion only – no vote – there is no speaker signup for the meeting, which will be held remotely at 1:30 p.m. Thursday and may be streamed online at that time.


Tuesday, May 26, 2020 by Elizabeth Pagano

Pool hopes Austin can ‘shop the block’ soon

Council Member Leslie Pool has announced that she is proposing changes to the city code that aim to help local businesses by using public space. In a post on the City Council Message Board, Pool says she is working on something for the June 4 agenda that will allow restaurants, bars and retail “use of their parking lots, portions of the sidewalk, and more of the public right-of-way. This is intended to increase their business capacity and maintain social distancing measures. … For many small businesses, a partial reopening is not financially feasible, whether it’s because the retail or restaurant space itself is too small to keep customers safe, or customers themselves are demanding greater space to safely dine or shop.” To fix that, Pool proposes relaxing permitting, likely through the city’s Special Events Ordinance, to allow businesses to use more outdoor space in “shop the block” events.

This whisper has been corrected to clarify that the current plan will amend an existing ordinance. It will not be a new resolution, as initially reported.


Tuesday, May 26, 2020 by Elizabeth Pagano

Parks department reworks summer camps

The Parks and Recreation Department is taking a look at summer programming, and in light of the pandemic, has canceled all paid summer camps. Beginning July 6, the city will instead offer about 20 free programs, prioritizing those in East Austin communities. According to a May 22 memo, the new programs will be limited to 16-24 campers per day, with the registration process to begin in June. The city is looking to secure meal options for the camps. In addition, the parks department will continue to provide day camps for essential city employees, a practice that has been ongoing throughout the pandemic response. More information about city pools, which remain closed at the moment, “will be announced in the coming weeks,” according to the city memo.


Tuesday, May 26, 2020 by Tai Moses

Wake up to the no-wake zones

In an effort to enhance boating safety, City Council approved an ordinance on Feb. 6 creating slow-no wake zones for boats on Lake Austin under and around Pennybacker Bridge and the area north of Tom Miller Dam, near the Walsh Boat Landing and Oyster Landing Marina, according to a news release from the city. “Under this ordinance, boaters must operate at headway speed, meaning that vessels are required to travel at the lowest possible speed needed to maintain control of the craft. These control zones are marked by navigational buoys as well as signage posted at the boat ramps and nearby businesses.” Officers with the Austin Police Department Lake Unit have been educating boaters about the new ordinance, trying to raise awareness “and gain voluntary compliance.” Because of Covid-19, the community education period has been extended until July 14. Following that date, boaters who violate the ordinance may be cited and possibly fined a maximum of $500.


Friday, May 22, 2020 by Elizabeth Pagano

Austin establishes first official ‘healthy streets’

Acting quickly on the resolution passed earlier this month, the Austin Transportation Department has announced the first batch of streets to be enrolled in Austin’s new Healthy Streets Initiative:

  • Bouldin Avenue/South Third Street/Garden Villa Lane between Banister Lane and Barton Springs Road
  • Comal Street between Manor Road and Lady Bird Lake
  • Country Club Creek Trail extension (Trail, Wickersham Lane, Ventura Drive, Madera Drive) between Mabel Davis Park and Lakeshore Drive

A press release from the department notes the “effort follows the recent successful temporary street modifications on the bridge over Longhorn Dam on Pleasant Valley Road and the closure of Riverside Drive from South First Street to Lee Barton Drive.” Under the Healthy Streets Program, staff members are closing a portion of the road to motorized vehicles to encourage safe use by cyclists, pedestrians and other non-vehicular forms of transportation. Transportation cautions residents that “Healthy Streets are designed for ‘active use’ only, individuals are prohibited from gathering, barbecuing or playing games that involve physical contact of any kind. Participants are expected to keep at least six feet apart at all times and required to wear a face covering while engaging in active recreation.”


Friday, May 22, 2020 by Elizabeth Pagano

Leave your ‘wet bikes’ at home this weekend

If your Memorial Day plans include Lake Austin, the city would like to remind you to have fun safely this weekend. To that end, the police department and lake patrol will prohibit personal watercraft, Wetbikes, motorized surfboards and the like beginning at sunset today through sunset on May 26. The ban, which is an attempt to ensure the safety of holiday crowds, only applies on Lake Austin.


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