Whispers

Thursday, October 17, 2019 by Jo Clifton

Hilton labor organizing could get a boost

Although the city owns the land under the downtown Hilton Hotel next to the convention center, the nonprofit Austin Convention Enterprises manages the relationship with the hotel. In 2006, ACE signed an agreement with Hilton Management that prohibits the hotel from allowing a union to organize the hotel’s employees. That would change under a resolution Council is likely to approve today directing ACE’s board of directors to “strongly consider” approving a resolution that would allow Hilton to negotiate with a union if the union agrees that there will be “no strikes, picketing, or other economic labor actions” at the hotel. Council Member Greg Casar is the lead sponsor on the item and told his colleagues at Tuesday’s work session that the agreement would help protect the city. Bo Delp of UNITE HERE told the Austin Monitor that his union is “deeply troubled and deeply disappointed” that Austin Convention Enterprises would enter into an agreement prohibiting the hotel operator from allowing employees to engage in federally protected rights. Delp said the union has reviewed operating agreements with eight hotels that compete with the Austin Convention Center and none contain language “even remotely similar” to what the Austin Convention Enterprises agreed to with the Hilton. The resolution also notes that the agreement between the city and Hilton will expire in 2021 and any new agreement will be carefully scrutinized to make sure it does not contain anti-union language. Delp declined comment on whether UNITE HERE is currently working on organizing the Hilton.


Thursday, October 17, 2019 by Tai Moses

Coalition wins green jobs grant

A partnership of the Austin carpenters union, the career-training and education group American YouthWorks and several local employers has won a $50,000 grant to train low-income young people for careers in the green energy construction industry, particularly solar installation. The grant, from the city’s Equitable Green Jobs Grant Program, is a joint project of the Economic Development Department and the Innovation, Equity and Sustainability offices. In a press release, Jason Engels, executive secretary-treasurer of the Central South Carpenters Regional Council, said, “There is a bright future and direct path to the middle class through green, union jobs, and we embrace the critical role we play in training a future workforce that will pioneer a green economy in Austin. We want to ensure that no one is left behind as we help Austin transition towards cleaner energy.” Parc Smith, CEO of American YouthWorks, said, “We are enthusiastic about the potential to provide young people with training in solar installation as a catalyst to broader exposure in the trades, and the promise of placement in the green building and construction industry.” According to the release, “The project will provide 36 young people, ages 18-24, the opportunity to receive training and certifications to become professionals in the renewable energy sector. Recruitment will focus on young men and women of color presently residing in low-income Austin neighborhoods, District 4, and especially those within the ZIP codes of 78744, 78441 and 78745.”


Thursday, October 17, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

Burning fires, burning lungs

Climate activist Paul Robbins came to the Oct. 7 meeting of the Public Safety Commission to alert commissioners to the dangers firefighters and first responders face. Beyond the obvious hazards associated with the profession, Robbins pointed out that heavy metals and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that are used in building materials can leach into the air when they burn. “Some can also be acutely toxic,” he said. These toxins sequester themselves in the body fat of humans and animals and can harm the long-term health of those who breathe in the poisonous fumes. He asked the commission to consider discussing a “ban or discourag(ing) toxic building materials.” Commission Chair Ed Scruggs said that as a topic that affects first responders in fire situations, the subject is definitely one of interest. “This will come back as an agenda item very soon,” he said.


Wednesday, October 16, 2019 by Elizabeth Pagano

What’s the 311?

During Council’s lengthy, heated discussion about the city’s homelessness ordinances Tuesday, there was an interesting sidebar about whether the city’s new policies have empirically impacted public health and safety. According to Taylor Cook, who is a program manager in the city’s Office of Design and Delivery, based on 311 data: no. In an email to Mayor Steve Adler posted on the City Council Message Board, Cook writes, “We established a normal range based on the average monthly frequencies for 2018 and then compared that to the monthly counts from May to August. I should get the September data this week which may change my overall impression, but so far, there is not a strong trend or correlation with most of the terms I have been tracking, and as a group there is no pattern. … When we get data points for September this could look different, but right now there is no pattern in the 311 data that would cause me to conclude that the ordinances have caused a consistent change in residents’ general perception of health and safety (where I would expect all calls and related terms to spike in July) or an material change in health and safety (where I would expect a change in monthly frequency to be sustained).”


Wednesday, October 16, 2019 by Tai Moses

Groundbreaking planned for Kingsbury Commons

The Austin Parks and Recreation Department and Pease Park Conservancy are hosting a groundbreaking ceremony to celebrate the start of construction of Kingsbury Commons, a revitalization project for the lower 10 acres of Pease Park. Future visitors to the park will be able to enjoy a kids’ nature area, a water play feature, an inventive treescape, upgraded sport courts and play equipment, and a repurposed Tudor Cottage to be used as a community gathering space. According to the PARD press release, “Kingsbury Commons was designed to enhance visitors’ experiences, sustain the park’s ecology, and increase usership and capacity. … All modifications will protect the forest canopy and historic features of the cottage and allow the park to retain its familiar storybook atmosphere.” Texas state Sen. Kirk Watson, Austin Mayor Steve Adler, PARD Director Kimberly McNeeley, Pease Park Conservancy CEO Heath Riddles, and Ten Eyck Landscape Architecture President Christy Ten Eyck will make brief remarks. The event will be held at the basketball court behind the swing set facing Kingsbury Street. Wednesday, Oct. 16, 9-11 a.m., Pease Park, 1100 Kingsbury St.


Wednesday, October 16, 2019 by Tai Moses

What’s up with the Park ATX app

Users of the Park ATX app may have noticed that they are being charged now for previously unbilled parking charges from the summer. Passport, the vendor that operates the app, has advised the Austin Transportation Department that the glitch is due to a “system change” that caused some users not to be charged when they added funds to their digital wallet accounts between late July to early September. Those customers are now being charged for the previously unbilled charges. “Passport has notified Austin Transportation that they are now processing these charges, and that any customers who need assistance should please contact Passport by emailing contactsupport@passportinc.com or calling 704-817-2500.”


Tuesday, October 15, 2019 by Jack Craver

Sleepy day at Commissioners Court

It looks like a short day for the Travis County Commissioners Court. Almost all of the items on the agenda have been listed as “consent,” meaning they are expected to pass without any debate. The commissioners will, however, “receive educational materials for Travis County Proposition A: Exposition Center.” The commissioners are pulling for Prop A to pass so that the county, at some point in the future, will be able to levy a 2 percent hotel tax to fund a new exposition center. Commissioners may be interested in discussing how they can make voters in Austin understand the difference between Travis County Prop A and the city of Austin Prop A, which would bar the city from giving public land to sports organizations without voter approval.


Tuesday, October 15, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

The rent’s too high

According to a recent study from the trade group Apartment List, nearly half of Austin renters qualify as being cost burdened – defined as spending more than 30 percent of their monthly income on housing. Data from 2018 showed 155,225 cost-burdened households in the Austin area, or 49.3 percent, with the percentage figure increasing from 46.5 percent in 2017, the first increase in four years. Nationwide, the Travis County market ranked 49th out of the 100 largest metro areas for percentage of cost-burdened households. The area has 23.3 percent of its renters spending 50 percent or more of their monthly income on housing, with 25.3 percent spending between 30 and 49 percent of their income on rent. Statewide, Houston recorded the same cost-burdened rate as Austin, with San Antonio slightly higher at 50.4 percent and Dallas lower at 47.2 percent.


Tuesday, October 15, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

Souly recognized

Souly Austin, the Economic Development Department’s program that creates neighborhood-specific merchant associations, was recently recognized by the Texas chapter of the American Planning Association. The group awarded Souly Austin with a Planning Achievement Award for Economic Development Planning, recognizing the six merchant districts formed to date that have brought together more than 1,200 businesses to implement enhancement projects, organize festivals and form other partnerships to encourage economic growth. Other city efforts recognized at the awards include the Strategic Housing Blueprint Implementation Atlas, the Strategic Mobility Plan and the Brush Square Master Plan. Souly Austin is currently accepting applications from businesses interested in forming an association, participating in economic analysis and capacity building workshops, and more. Typically two new business areas are organized as Souly districts each year. Applications are open until Oct. 30.


Tuesday, October 15, 2019 by Tai Moses

Parks department puts out RFA for event organizer

The Austin Parks and Recreation Department wishes to host an annual special event and is looking for a professional event organizer to produce it. The event will take place at Fiesta Gardens West End, at Edward Rendon Sr. Metropolitan Park at Festival Beach. According to PARD’s press release, “Applications should be for a dynamic, cultural and/or music experience that is family friendly and affordable, includes a wide range of entertainment genres, appeals to Austin’s diverse population, and remains within the park boundaries.” The parks department is looking for applicants who have a background organizing and producing special events with more than 1,000 attendees and have worked with the Austin Center for Events. “A successful application will demonstrate experience and understanding of the Special Events Ordinance, ACE Office, PARD policies, and Parkland Events Taskforce Recommendations.” The deadline for responding to PARD’s request for applications is 4:30 p.m. on Nov. 1. More details are available at the Office of Special Events.


Monday, October 14, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

Learn about the Challenge Studio incubator

Today the city will hold an information session on its Challenge Studio incubator program, which teams up local entrepreneurs and helps them develop solutions to challenges outlined in the city’s five-year plan. Program administrator Lance McNeil will lead the free session, which runs 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Huston-Tillotson University Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation that is part of the Springdale General incubator on Springdale Road. The nine-month program will be focused on creating new businesses and products around the issues of food security, nutrition and zero-waste environmental goals. Applicants should have some business skills as well as experience in the specified areas. Participants will be provided with workspace, learning programs, coaching and technical assistance. Registration and information is available here.


Monday, October 14, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

EMS personnel have more backup now in the event of assault

After reports from EMS personnel raised questions about the frequency of field officer assault by patients, Selena Xie, the president of the Austin EMS Association, approached the Public Safety Commission to ask for assistance in creating a better safety net for EMS professionals who need emergency assistance in the event of an assault. One month later, on Oct. 7, she came back to tell the commissioners that the association had gotten everything it had asked for. “(We) got positive movement on all three fronts,” she said, referring to her requests for de-escalation training, a police department code medics can use if they find themselves in distress and a way for medics to report an assault.


Monday, October 14, 2019 by Tai Moses

Brush up on amendments before Nov. 5

Texan voters will have the opportunity on Nov. 5 to approve – or not – 10 new amendments to the state constitution. To help you be as informed as possible before you go to the polls, the League of Women Voters of Texas has provided an invaluable service by researching each amendment and offering an impartial summary of pros and cons to help you make up your mind. As Texas League President Grace Chimene said in a press release, “You decide which of the 10 proposed amendments will become part of the Texas Constitution. Given the significance of the issues and relative permanence of constitutional amendments, voters need to understand each of the propositions to cast an informed vote.” The amendment topics range from public school funding and rules for municipal court judges to tax exemptions for disaster areas and guidelines for the retirement of police dogs and horses. You can find the League’s Voters Guide on the LWVTX website.


Monday, October 14, 2019 by Tai Moses

School’s out today

Austin ISD has canceled all classes for students today while district schools conduct elementary level parent conferences and secondary level staff development.


Friday, October 11, 2019 by Katherine Corley

Over 500 pounds of trash collected from homeless encampments

Over 500 pounds of trash, in 119 bags, has been collected thanks to Austin’s Violet Bag pilot program, according to Austin Resource Recovery’s report to the Zero Waste Advisory Commission on Wednesday evening. The Violet Bag trash collection program, as part of an initiative to help keep Austin clean, provides purple trash bags and trash drop-off sites close to homeless “encampments with a high volume of trash-related complaints. People experiencing homelessness have been encouraged to fill trash bags for weekly pickup” at the designated sites, per a recent city press release. The program is a collaboration between several city departments, including Austin Resource Recovery, Watershed Protection, the Office of Design and Delivery, Public Works, Parks and Recreation, Integral Care PATH team, and Austin 311. The initial seven-week pilot program began in July and was tested in four areas: Ohlen Road and U.S. Highway 183 in North Austin; Cameron Road and U.S. 183 in Northeast Austin; Cesar Chavez Street and Interstate 35 in Central Austin; and Packsaddle Pass and State Highway 71 in South Austin. “The pilot added an additional site at Pleasant Valley Road and Cesar Chavez in East Austin for the second phase of the pilot, which will continue through the end of October. When the pilot ends, the program will be re-evaluated and recommendations will be made about expanding it citywide,” according to the press release.

This has been edited since publication.


Friday, October 11, 2019 by Tai Moses

PARD gets climate study grant

The Parks and Recreation Department has received a $341,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation “to study the physical and emotional health effects of worsening extreme heat due to climate change,” according to a PARD press release. The grant is intended to help PARD’s Cities Connecting Children to Nature program study “whether worsening heat decreases opportunities for physical activity and reduces the overall emotional well-being of young people.” The research will be conducted at three elementary schools with majority Latino populations – Barrington, Cook and Odom – because “Latino children from low-income families have been found to live in areas characterized by urban heat islands and exhibit lower physical activity levels and higher risk of heat illness than other groups.” PARD Director Kimberly McNeeley said the results of the study “will help us understand how equitable access to nature can keep kids happy, healthy, and playing outside.” The results will be published in spring 2021.


Friday, October 11, 2019 by Tai Moses

City announces holiday art contest

The Zilker Holiday Tree, Austin’s celebrated holiday symbol, is lit every year on the first of December. The Austin Parks and Recreation Department and Austin Energy are using the annual tree-lighting as the prize for their Zilker Holiday Tree Art Contest – the winners get to help light the tree. Kids between the ages of 5 and 10 are eligible to enter the contest to create an original artwork of the Zilker tree using crayons, watercolors, ink, colored paper, pastels or paint. Entries are due Nov. 1. Find the full contest rules and entry form here. (Spanish version here.)

Photo by Austin Parks and Recreation Department.


Thursday, October 10, 2019 by Jack Craver

Nolan Ryan, Kevin Fowler support county proposition for expo center

A group including Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, Commissioner Jeff Travillion, Austin NAACP President Nelson Linder, and Rodeo Austin CEO Rob Golding assembled at the Travis County Exposition Center Wednesday morning to announce the launch of a new political action committee. Energize the Expo is aimed at getting voters to approve Proposition A, which would authorize the county to collect a 2 percent venue tax on hotel stays to fund the reconstruction of the dilapidated expo center, which is best known for hosting the annual Star of Texas Fair & Rodeo. A news release put out by Rodeo Austin Wednesday announced the impending endorsement of Prop A by “two prominent Texans.” It turns out the ballot measure has the support of Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan and country music star Kevin Fowler. If Prop A is approved, the hotel tax will not go into effect until the city of Austin has retired its debt on the expansion of the Austin Convention Center approved in 1998. That will allow the city to stop levying its own venue tax, freeing up the county to take over.


Thursday, October 10, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

Further delay for Harper-Madison campaign complaint

A complaint filed by Matthew Mackowiak against Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison has been postponed by the Ethics Review Commission to Nov. 13. The item was initially scheduled to appear before the commission in August, but was postponed to Sept. 18 and again to October. At Wednesday’s meeting, however, the commission said it lacked a quorum on the issue. Mackowiak is chairman of the Travis County Republican Party and president of Potomac Strategy Group, a consulting firm that works with conservative political campaigns and private clients. Mackowiak has alleged that Harper-Madison violated City Code Chapter 2-2 (Campaign Finance) Section 2-2-7 (Commencement of Campaign Period) by continuing to raise campaign funds after the official end of her fundraising window. According to Harper-Madison, the $3,695 in funds raised over three months were the result of an “innocent mistake.”


Thursday, October 10, 2019 by Jo Clifton

McFadden has a new gig

Local political consultant and alternative transportation advocate Elliott McFadden announced Wednesday that he was officially launching his new consulting business, McFadden Mobility Consulting. He told friends on Facebook, “I will be offering strategic planning, business analysis, product development and communications services to organizations and governments seeking to innovate in the shared-use transportation space.” McFadden has been the executive director of Bike Share of Austin (Austin B-cycle) for the past six years. He has also worked for Foundation Communities and served as executive director of the Travis County Democratic Party.


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