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Whispers

Monday, August 13, 2018 by Katy McElroy

City down a splash zone

After an electrical failure occurred on Thursday afternoon, the city has closed the Liz Carpenter Fountain on Barton Springs Road until further notice. Replacement parts are being procured, and the fountain will be fixed as soon as they are in hand. In the meantime, the city suggests the Ricky Guerrero, Chestnut, Lott and Pease splash pads as alternative cool-off options.


Friday, August 10, 2018 by Jack Craver

Council sets maximum tax rate increase at 6 percent

City Council bound itself to not increasing property tax revenue by more than 6 percent when it approves the Fiscal Year 2018-19 budget next month. That means the maximum city tax rate this year will be 44.2 cents per $100 of property valuation. State law requires local governments to adopt a maximum increase before beginning budget deliberations. The budget proposed by city staff would raise the revenue limit by 4.9 percent. While nobody on the dais said they anticipated raising the rate all the way up to the maximum rate of 8 percent (raising it higher requires voter approval), some suggested that they set 8 percent as the maximum in order to allow as much flexibility as necessary during budget deliberations. Only four members of the dais supported that: Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Council members Greg Casar, Delia Garza and Pio Renteria. Mayor Steve Adler and Council members Alison Alter and Ann Kitchen thought that 6 percent was a reasonable way to grant some flexibility while showing support for fiscal restraint. Council Member Ora Houston proposed 5.5 percent, but the motion failed, with only Council members Jimmy Flannigan, Leslie Pool and Ellen Troxclair in support. Afterward, the 6 percent rate was approved unanimously.


Friday, August 10, 2018 by Katy McElroy

Mark your calendars for the Springs

It wasn’t just all about soccer at the City Council meeting yesterday – our city representatives also found the time to declare Sept. 25 Barton Springs University Day. Produced by the Save Our Springs Alliance, the event, which the website shares is “designed primarily for high school students but includes college students and the general public,” features a community fair as well as a jam-packed schedule of learning sessions led by expert speakers. A quick perusal of the lecture titles shows topics related to the area’s unique ecosystem, such as “Salamanders and Their Habitats” and “Meeting Austin’s Water Needs for the Next 100 Years,” as well as sustainable living and conservation interests in general, such as “Careers in Conservation” and “Waste in Our Community: Recycling & Composting.” Participants can also join hands-on activities throughout the day like water quality testing, macroinvertebrate collection, and more.


Friday, August 10, 2018 by Katy McElroy

City kicks off corridor program open houses

As part of the design phase for the Corridor Construction Program, adopted by City Council in April, the Austin Transportation Department has announced that it will be holding public open houses to share its plans to make each corridor better for all modes of transportation. In total, nine corridors will receive enhancements in the program, which is funded in part by a large portion of the 2016 mobility bond. The first open house is this Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at IDEA Montopolis, 1701 Vargas Road, and will introduce staff’s ideas for mobility, safety and connectivity improvements to East Riverside Drive between Interstate 35 and State Highway 71. The second open house will focus on the Slaughter Lane corridor, which runs down Slaughter Lane between FM 1826 and Vertex Boulevard. That one is scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 22, 5 to 8 p.m. at the Bethany Lutheran Church at 3701 W. Slaughter Lane. Information on the open houses for the remaining corridors will be shared on the program’s What’s New page, here. The design phase is expected to take 12 to 36 months, and staff will update Council on its progress and request approval for construction in the spring.


Thursday, August 9, 2018 by Katy McElroy

Austin Public Health looking for women who handled rabid bat

Austin’s health department officials are concerned about several women who were recently in contact with a bat that has since tested positive for rabies. The press release from Austin Public Health states that on the afternoon of Aug. 2, outside the Austin Convention Center, “multiple females were seen picking up a bat from the sidewalk and handling it while trying to give it water. They then placed the bat in a tree and the bat fell out again on the ground. The bat was then covered with a cone until it was collected by Animal Protection.” The bat later tested positive for rabies. Rabies transmission occurs when an animal with rabies bites or scratches a person, “or when abrasions, open wounds, or mucous membranes are contaminated with the saliva, brain, or nervous system tissue of a potentially rabid animal.” Though people may not show signs of rabies infection for several weeks, symptoms can then progress rapidly from fever or headache to confusion, agitation or sleepiness. Even more alarming, the release warns that “once someone with a rabies infection starts having these symptoms, that person usually does not survive.” The department is urging anyone who came in contact with the bat to call the Disease Surveillance Program at 512-972-5555 immediately for more information.


Thursday, August 9, 2018 by Jack Craver

Houston voices doubts about anti-Confederate resolution

It appears that the only member of City Council who has a problem with a resolution aimed at preventing the participation of Confederate groups in this year’s Veterans Day parade is Council Member Ora Houston, the only African-American on the dais. At Tuesday’s work session, Houston raised concerns about a resolution declaring that “city resources, including fee waivers, be used only for Veterans Day events and parades that only honor those who have served in the United States of America’s Armed Forces.” The resolution is ostensibly aimed at preventing the participation of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who last year were told they could take part in the march but not fly the Confederate flag. Houston said that the resolution was pre-emptively excluding potential applicants from the typical process for fee waivers. “What’s the purpose of memorializing the statement of exclusion?” she asked. Mayor Steve Adler, one of the resolution’s co-sponsors, said that the measure was intended as direction to staff that Council wants the parade’s “focus to be on veterans of the United States of America armed forces,” but that it would not prevent any group from applying for a fee waiver. Houston wondered aloud if that meant that “allied forces” – she suggested the United Kingdom – would also be excluded. Adler replied that that was correct and reiterated his desire for the focus to be on U.S. troops. Houston replied: “I think it’s exclusionary. I think you’re trying to say something without actually saying it because I think it would probably be against free speech to be able to say that.”


Thursday, August 9, 2018 by Katy McElroy

Thoughts on dockless?

The city has been refining its rules for dockless mobility, and it would like community input to make sure that they are in line with what the public would like to see. The Dockless Mobility Program was created after LimeBike (now Lime) and Bird released their free-floating, rentable-by-the-minute scooters into Austin’s streets in early April. At the time, the city was in the process of negotiating a dockless bike-sharing pilot program, but the sudden influx of scooters pushed the process forward, culminating in the hasty development of the dockless operator’s license and corresponding emergency administrative regulations that are currently in place. Dockless bike and scooter sharing has been hailed as providing Austinites with a convenient way to cruise through clogged downtown streets but has also received criticism regarding street clutter and rider safety, with the latter issue in the news lately after a woman on a Lime scooter was involved in a serious crash on Sunday. If you have opinions on how businesses like these should be allowed to operate in Austin’s streets and sidewalks, the survey is here – it will be open through Aug. 31.


Wednesday, August 8, 2018 by Jo Clifton

Nathan White ready to challenge Kitchen

Nathan White, a newcomer to Austin politics, is preparing to run for the District 5 seat against incumbent Council Member Ann Kitchen. White, 26, works as an administrative assistant at Girling Health Care and also drives for Uber and Lyft. He told the Austin Monitor, “I’m definitely a working-class guy.” White said after the 2016 presidential election he “really re-evaluated the ways I might be able to impact politics.” Looking at different positions that might be available, he said, it seemed like City Council was a good place to start. White said his primary focus, if elected, would be to raise the minimum wage in Austin to $15 an hour. Coincidentally, City Manager Spencer Cronk announced on Monday that the new budget includes a minimum wage raise for all city employees, whether full-time or part-time, to $15 starting in the new fiscal year. White said he had heard that under state law Austin could not raise the minimum wage. However, he said he had not seen the statute and he thought that it would still be appropriate for Austin to try to do that. Austin and other Texas cities are precluded from setting a minimum wage by the Texas Minimum Wage Act but White said that it is so important that he will keep pushing for it. White also signed the pledge not to accept or spend more than $500 for his campaign and said that he thought there was too much money in politics. Although the mayor’s race and races for other Council seats have multiple candidates, White is Kitchen’s only challenger so far.


Wednesday, August 8, 2018 by Elizabeth Pagano

Evolve reacts to CodeNEXT proposal

With statements on the books from 10 of the 11 City Council members, a proposal to stop the current CodeNEXT process is all but certain. On Tuesday, Evolve Austin released a statement that acknowledged “the need to pause and reevaluate the CodeNEXT process.” However, the coalition also urged Austin leadership to reaffirm commitment to Imagine Austin, and reaffirmed their own commitment to “the need to pause and reevaluate the CodeNEXT process,” saying the city could not afford to wait longer. The statement explains, “we are discouraged that a small but vocal minority has sown misinformation through our neighborhoods and constructed a narrative that making any changes to our broken, outdated land development code is unwanted or unpopular. We urge our city leaders to not capitulate to proponents of the status quo who have relied on scare tactics and litigation to grind this process to a halt. Across our city, thousands of residents support the need for new solutions to the ever-growing affordability crisis, environmental degradation, and standstill traffic the outdated land development code has contributed towards.”


Tuesday, August 7, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

Few in Austin asked for immigration status

On June 14, Council passed two “Freedom City” ordinances that are intended to reduce racial disparities in discretionary arrests and ensure that police officers inform people of their right not to answer when they ask about immigration status. Among other things, this resolution established twice-yearly reporting requirements as to the number of requests that the Austin Police Department makes in regard to someone’s immigration status. According to the department’s current policy, all incidences of this type of inquiry must document “not only did you ask that question but why you asked that question,” explained APD Assistant Chief Troy Gay at the August 6 meeting of the Public Safety Commission. Following the resolution passed by Council, when a request for immigration status is presented, “We will be instructing the officers that you will let that person know that they are not compelled to respond,” said Gay. There will be no action taken by officers with that information provided. Since Sept. 1, 2017, when the new policy went into effect, there have been three legitimate inquiries into someone’s status. “All of those have been reviewed. They were appropriate,” said Gay. He explained that the requests came about because the cases involved human trafficking, a traffic incident with no ID on the individual and questionable documents in the vehicle, and a credit card scheme investigation where a person had a fake Canadian ID.


Tuesday, August 7, 2018 by Elizabeth Pagano

Workgroups to combat AIDS start this month

Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt signed the Paris Declaration to end the AIDS epidemic in June, launching the “Fast-Track Cities Initiative” in the process. Now that initiative is moving forward, in an effort to ensure that in Travis County, by 2020, 90 percent of all people living with HIV will know their HIV status, receive sustained treatment and have an undetectable viral load. The initiative also holds goals to end stigma and establish a 50 percent reduction in new infections. To that end, this month workgroups will be established to begin work on the goals. All meetings will be held at the Rosewood-Zaragosa Neighborhood Center Gym, and information on those meetings and how to sign up is available online here.


Tuesday, August 7, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

Austin body camera policy experiences hiccups with requests for access

It is important for citizens to have access to police body camera footage to help promote transparency and trust within the community. Unfortunately, “There are very specific guidelines of who can request and who we can release to. It’s very, very restrictive,” explained Austin Police Department Assistant Chief Troy Gay at the Aug. 6 meeting of the Public Safety Commission. Commissioner Daniela Nuñez agreed with his assessment. “There are no clear rules for APD releasing that footage to the public,” she said. “It would be great to clarify that.” Among the restrictions, the police department will not release footage until an investigation is complete. Still, even if an individual meets all the prerequisites to have access to body camera footage, sometimes they are not granted it. “From January 1 through June 8 we’ve had 57 body-worn cam requests. We’ve fulfilled 10 of those requests,” said Gay. The department was unable to fulfill the other 47 requests due to no footage being available, the case being under open investigation, or the individual withdrawing their request. However, even those that were fulfilled are taking a little time to come down from the data cloud and into the hands of the public. State law requires the police department to respond to a request within 10 days, but Gay says, “We are at least 30 if not 60 days behind on some of those returns.” The police department originally implemented the use of body cameras last October and has so far deployed 1300 cameras to officers. Through a federal grant, they are entitled to 1500, and Gay says that they plan to have that many on the streets by September when the grant runs out. He noted that there is a possibility of adding an additional 400 cameras next year if Council grants them the funds in the budgeting process.


Tuesday, August 7, 2018 by Elizabeth Pagano

This is a soccer blog now

If you missed City Council last month, this week ought to cure you. A gauntlet of city meetings awaits! Today, City Council will hold their regular Tuesday work session in preparation for their Thursday meeting. In addition, Council will once again take up proposals for McKalla Place (which could, possibly, be home to a Major League Soccer Stadium at some point) at a special 3 p.m. meeting dedicated to that topic.


Monday, August 6, 2018 by Austin Monitor

Let’s (budget) party!

Municipal budget time is upon us and as is tradition we are excited to announce our third annual budget party game night!

As Austin City Council gears up to debate and deliberate our city budget, we are hosting an interactive game night that will allow you to both dive deep into how your money is being spent and propose your own budget priorities. Budget game night gives you an opportunity to play the Budget Party game, a web application to explore Austin’s city budget, and invites you to remix how departments and services are funded.

With the help of Open Austin and Austin Tech Alliance, we will also be learning about participatory budgeting and how it can help bring about a more transparent, collaborative budget process.

If you have ideas about how the city’s money should be allocated and would like to learn about innovative approaches to city budgeting, be sure to RSVP to this year’s Budget Party.

Join us on Tuesday, Aug. 14, from 5:30 until 8:00 p.m. at Capital Factory. Tickets are free and refreshments will be provided.


Monday, August 6, 2018 by Jack Craver

Susana Almanza will challenge brother Pio Renteria for Council again

Longtime activist Susana Almanza will once again face her brother, Council Member Pio Renteria, in a bid for City Council. Renteria won his current position four years ago when he triumphed over Almanza in a runoff election with 60 percent of the vote. The siblings’ main disagreement is over how to address housing affordability. Renteria is an outspoken advocate for increasing housing stock and more multifamily housing, while Almanza has been a longtime opponent of increased density on the east side, which she says leads to gentrification, increased housing costs and displacement of longtime residents. Almanza is one of five candidates who have declared for District 3. The others are Renteria, James Valadez, Jessica Cohen and the most recent entrant to the race, Justin Jacobson.


Monday, August 6, 2018 by Jack Craver

A second Tovo challenger introduces herself

Linda O’Neal, who in early July announced plans to challenge Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo for the District 9 seat on City Council, will be holding a “Meet the Candidate” event at the Mohawk on Tuesday, Aug. 7, from 5 to 8 p.m. O’Neal is the third candidate in the race and has a lot of catching up to do. Another challenger, Danielle Skidmore, declared her candidacy in March and had raised over $47,000 by June 30, while Tovo raised just under $42,000. On her campaign website O’Neal describes affordability as her top goal, and she said that she would support CodeNEXT, the revamp of the land development code that has been sidelined.


Friday, August 3, 2018 by Katy McElroy

ATCEMS on TV

Austin-Travis County paramedics will be getting their 15 minutes of fame, and then some, over the next 12 weeks. “Nightwatch Presents: First Responders,” featuring the Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Service and another agency, premiered on A&E last night at 9:30 p.m. The show is a spin-off of the critically acclaimed “Nightwatch” series, which follows first responders working the night shift. The second episode of the short-form series will air at the same time next Thursday, Aug. 9. The short series focuses on the more dangerous or atypical parts of the job. The following week, “Nightwatch Nation” premieres on Thursday, Aug. 16, at 9 p.m. The 10-episode run will also feature ATCEMS employees toiling tirelessly through the night, along with medics from Yonkers, New York; Tucson, Arizona; and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And this season, the preview video teases, the show will even “go inside the 911 call room.”


Friday, August 3, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

City environmental officer retires

Everyone who loves the environment is shedding a few tears following Environmental Officer Chuck Lesniak’s announcement. After 28 years with the city, Lesniak is retiring. Even though he told the Austin Monitor that this was his “dream job” when he spoke to us on the radio, he said that it was time to leave due to personal reasons. Through his tenure with the city, Lesniak has seen the population double and the results that a rapidly changing city has had on environmental regulations and the Land Development Code – even as the citizens of Austin become more attuned to the environment that they interact with every day. Lesniak was the city’s environmental officer for the last half-decade, but that position will now be filled by Chris Herrington, who was formerly the data analysis and decision support manager for the Watershed Protection Department.


Friday, August 3, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

Checking in on HQ2

There’s been deafening silence in Austin and 19 other North American cities still in the running for the economic beauty pageant underway to win the prize of landing Amazon’s $5 billion HQ2, but a recent business story out of Seattle sheds some interesting rays of light on the mostly clandestine process. Among them: Amazon’s visitors to finalist cities only introduced themselves by first name and withheld other relevant info until later in the process; Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is reportedly obsessed with incentives and “getting the largest pound of flesh” from competing cities, since he views incentives as a measure of a city’s genuine interest; and the company weighs its potential impact on the eventual winner, and how it will affect unique challenges and issues in a given city. Contender cities have reportedly been getting the silent treatment since receiving an email earlier this year informing them of the review process, with an Austin Chamber of Commerce representative telling the Austin Business Journal they’ve received no more updates. The Seattle story also includes the revelation that cities’ nondisclosure agreements with the company don’t prevent them from sharing information about their bid proposals. The Austin Chamber, which reportedly handled Austin’s HQ2 proposal, has withheld all information about the package. When queried by the Austin Monitor about a possible release of info, given the apparent latitude granted by the company, a representative responded by email: “No change.”


Friday, August 3, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

Impact to be awarded

A selection of public and public-private projects involving the city of Austin have been named among the finalists for Urban Land Institute Austin’s 2018 Impact Awards. The awards, which take place Aug. 28 at the ZACH Theatre, honor people, properties and plans in the Austin real estate world that promote the organization’s goal of responsible land use and creating sustainable communities. The nomination field includes Austin Central Library, Republic Square Park, the master plan and phase one development of the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas, Plaza Saltillo, Downtown Austin Vision, the South Central Waterfront Vision Framework Plan, the trail bridge at the Congress Avenue bridge, Opportunity Austin 4.0, and Reconnect Austin. Previously recognized projects include Lamar Union, Seaholm EcoDistrict, Dell Seton Medical Center and Auditorium Shores. The three judges for the 2018 awards include former City Council Member Chris Riley.


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