Whispers

Wednesday, August 6, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Hang up that phone or else

Austin City Council members engaged in a brief discussion about a potential ban on driving while using handheld devices Tuesday morning. Though they took no action — and one is expected for another two or three weeks — Mayor Lee Leffingwell did express some skepticism over a portion of the ordinance that would limit such activity even while stopped. There, Leffingwell appeared to side with Public Safety Commission Chair Kim Rossmo, who Monday voted against such a ban.


Wednesday, August 6, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Send in the drones

At Tuesday’s work session, the City Council discussed a proposed interlocal agreement between the city and the Texas A&M University System to investigate potential future uses of unmanned aerial vehicles (aka drones) and other robotics in emergency response situations. Austin Fire Department Assistant Chief Richard Davis stated that the agreement would have no fiscal impact on the city, and that “the technology has promise.” Davis explained that the goal of the four-year project is to have developed a plan for implementing the technology by its end. Council Member Bill Spelman, who requested the item, expressed concern about how the public might perceive such a project. He suggested that the Fire Department split the program into four, yearlong projects, with progress reports at the end of each year.


Wednesday, August 6, 2014 by Michael Kanin

City to address problems at Barton Springs spillway

City officials will discuss actions today that will be taken to respond to concerns about issues arising from the heavy use of the Barton Springs Spillway, the area just north of Barton Springs Pool, at a news conference. The Austin Parks and Recreation Department and the Austin Police Department have seen a 40 percent increase in crime-related activities in this metropolitan park area. Activities such as use of alcohol and illegal substances; theft; smoking; and other violations such as dogs off leash, will be addressed. PARD and APD officials plan a news conference at 11:30 a.m. today near the spillway just north of the Barton Springs Pool.


Wednesday, August 6, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Meetings

The Environmental Board meets at 6:30 p.m. in Room 325 at One Texas Center, 505 Barton Springs Road . . . The Police Monitor Citizen Review Panel meeting is canceled. . .


Tuesday, August 5, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Official now

District 1 candidate Ora Houston filed the documents necessary to get her name on the November 4 ballot Monday at about the same time that Steve Adler filed his paperwork for the mayoral ballot.


Tuesday, August 5, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Outreach is expensive

The current phase of the CodeNEXT rewrite of the city’s Land Development Code is fast coming to an end, and that phase is already set to cost the city about $500,000 more than originally anticipated. The current contract with Opticos Design, Inc. will end in October 2014, and has had several adjustments to its scope and schedule. Council originally approved up to $2 million for the rewrite process. About $1.25 million of that has already been spent, leaving just $750,000 for Phase II of the project. The second phase will cover drafting new or revised code, reformatting and reorganizing the code, and testing new code through modeling software. A memo responding to a budget query from Council Member Laura Morrison details how Phase I costs accrued, and explains that staff did not anticipate a number of costs that have arisen. Items that pushed the budget a half-million bucks over the line include: public CodeTALKs, additional Envision Tomorrow software modeling, integration of other code amendments currently in process, monthly trips by the lead consultant to talk with stakeholders, and the cost of shifting the timeline for so the new 10-1 City Council can vote on it.


Tuesday, August 5, 2014 by Michael Kanin

City wins two GIS awards

The City of Austin has received praise recently for its work with Geographic Information System applications. The city was recognized with two awards for unique GIS application solution. The first was from the Public Technology Institute for Significant Achievement in GIS for the Infrastructure Management, Mapping, Planning and Coordination Tool. The second award was from the ESRI SAG Awards for special achievement in GIS. For more information, go to the city website.


Tuesday, August 5, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Travis County to vote on incentive agreement

Travis County Commissioners are scheduled to vote today on the request from Charles Schwab, a San Francisco-based brokerage and banking corporation, for an $8.5 million economic incentive agreement to expand its offices in Austin. If the court approves the motion, the corporation will also get $4.5 million from the state. The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Austin Asian Chamber of Commerce support the agreement, while local taxpayer organizations like ChangeAustin.org oppose. More citizens might show up to oppose the measure today, since there was only a three-day notice that the item was going on last week’s agenda last week.


Tuesday, August 5, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Environmental Democrats meet

Austin Environmental Democrats will gather Wednesday to hear candidates for Mayor and City Council District 9 and make endorsements in those races. The group will meet from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at El Mercado Restaurant on South First Street. Only members who paid their dues by July 6 will be eligible to vote. The group decided to limit proxies to one per member attending in order to prevent the practice of sending one member with numerous proxies for a particular candidate. Council Members Sheryl Cole and Mike Martinez and attorney Steve Adler completed the group’s questionnaire in the mayoral race, as did Council Members Chris Riley and Kathie Tovo in District 9. The group plans further endorsement meetings later in August.


Tuesday, August 5, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Meetings

The Austin City Council meets in a work session at 9 a.m. at Town Lake Center, 721 Barton Springs Road in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission meets at 6 p.m. in One Texas Center, 505 Barton Springs Road . . . The Travis County Commissioners Court meets at 9 a.m. in Chambers at 700 Lavaca St. . . . The Williamson County Commissioners Court meets at 9:30 a.m. in the Williamson County Courthouse in Georgetown . . . The Hays County Commissioners meet at 9 a.m. in the Hays County Courthouse in San Marcos.


Monday, August 4, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Getting an early jump on endorsements

The Austin Police Association political action committee has endorsed several candidates running for Austin City Council in the fall election. Their endorsement is an important sign of strength for each of those gaining their support. In District 1, the APA PAC selected neighborhood leader Ora Houston. In District 2, the group unsurprisingly endorsed Delia Garza, an assistant attorney general who previously served as an Austin firefighter. So far, Garza’s campaign has been more visible than that of her opponent, neighborhood leader Edward Reyes… The police PAC also endorsed District 4 candidate Katrina Daniel, one of three strong contenders, we think, in a district divided by I-35. Daniel will have to beat Greg Casar, Laura Pressley and seven other candidates in this district if all those who have designated treasurers actually file for the office…Robert Thomas was the APA PAC choice for District 10. Thomas, of course, faces Mandy Dealey, Jason Meeker, Sherri Gallo, Margie Burciaga, Tina Cannon, Matt Lamon and Bill Worsham in a race that could easily go into a Dec. 16 runoff… Dealey has the support of the Network of Asian-American Organizations, which praised her longtime involvement with charitable, cultural and civic organizations, including service on six boards and commissions over the years… The police association political arm did not immediately endorse candidates in the other races.


Monday, August 4, 2014 by Michael Kanin

New District 7 candidate

Zachary Ingraham joins seven other of candidates running to represent residents of District 7. Ingraham filed documents indicating that he would serve as his own campaign treasurer Friday.


Monday, August 4, 2014 by Beth Cortez-Neavel

Appraisal District seeks $2.9 million budget increase

The Travis Central Appraisal District is asking for an extra $2.9 million budget increase for Fiscal Year 2015 from the county. The Travis County Commissioners Court will discuss, and possibly vote on the increase at Tuesday’s regular session. The district’s board of directors asked that Chief Appraiser Marya Crigler provide recommendations to the court regarding allegations from citizens regarding perceived inequities in the appraisal system and provide a budget to help fund those recommendations. The money would assist district court litigation on appraisal protests from commercial properties. The funds would also go to hiring new appraisal staff to handle the increased volume of protests,  research property sales information for commercial properties, and for purchasing fee appraisals to help calibrate and validate the accuracy of the current appraisal process.


Monday, August 4, 2014 by Michael Kanin

TDHCA announces affordable housing loans

More than $62 million in 2014 Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs loan recommendations were announced Thursday, and there was good news for some local affordable housing projects. The agency made its award recommendations for the competitive 9 percent housing tax credit program, which helps many of the state’s most affordable housing projects. This year, the state recommended that about $4.2 million be allocated to five projects in Region 7, which includes Austin. Three of those projects, including Foundation Communities’ Trails Phase II, South Lamar’s Bluebonnet Studios and the Rutledge Spur Apartments, won recommendations. Also named were Liberty Manor in Williamson County and the Art at Bratton’s Edge project. If completed, the five projects will bring 426 affordable units to the region.


Monday, August 4, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Meetings

The Council Comprehensive Planning and Transportation Committee meets at 2 p.m. in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall . . . The Public Safety Commission meets at 4 p.m. in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall . . . The Austin Music Commission meets at 6:30 p.m. in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall.


Friday, August 1, 2014 by Michael Kanin

New view of bond language

City Council watchers and those with a particular interest in the upcoming transportation election have been expecting a ballot item that includes $600 million for rail and an additional $400 million for road improvements. The language currently floating around City Hall would provide for both but in a different way than many had anticipated. It begins with approval of issuance of $600 million in bonds for rail systems, etc., with a requirement that the city obtains “match funding or financial assistance …from one or more public or private sources.” So, as Mayor Lee Leffingwell has been saying, if the city does not get federal funds in the same amount (or some other source), then the city would not issue the bonds. In addition, the city would provide funding of “not less than $400 million” for transportation projects “of regional significance that are designed to relieve congestion” in various corridors, including I-35, US 183 and RM 620, FM 1626 and FM 2222, Parmer, Lamar Boulevard and Loop 360 corridors, and levy a tax to pay for that. That authority would give the City Council flexibility to issue certificates of obligation. “The proposal is a billion dollars but we don’t need a billion dollars of bond authorization to spend that,” said Council Member Bill Spelman, because some of the funds could come from cash and some could come from previous bond authorizations. “We’re making a promise we’re going to spend $400 million in these corridors,” he said. In order to do that, he said, voters must approve the bond proposition and the federal government (or some private benefactor) must provide the other $600 million for the rail system.


Friday, August 1, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Pent-up demand on Council Agenda

Council members will be voting on the bond language Aug. 7, as part of their very long agenda. Leffingwell said during Thursday’s budget work session that there are currently 169 items on the agenda and likely more to come. Then he asked for a motion to cancel a planned Aug. 21 Council meeting because the Travis County Commissioners’ chambers are not going to be available, as the city had previously planned. That means the next meeting, Aug. 28, will be even longer than it might have been. Spelman objected to giving up that meeting, asking whether staff could not find another spot to meet and Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole suggested that they should meet in a school since school will not have started. Leffingwell explained that the logistics of moving meetings was not so simple, what with security and communications equipment requirements. However, he agreed to postpone consideration of the item until next week.


Friday, August 1, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Homestead exemption discussion debated

Though City Council was scheduled to discuss the possibility of a general homestead exemption at Thursday’s budget session, those talks will now take place during next week’s City Council work session. Faced with a busy meeting, Council opted to postpone the briefing, but Council Members Mike Martinez and Kathie Tovo resisted Mayor Lee Leffingwell’s suggestion that the briefing could take place after the budget was complete. Though Leffingwell argued that any homestead exemption “can’t be a part of this year’s budget anyway,” and could be held when Council had more time to talk about the idea, Martinez disagreed. “I think the point of the item was to bring it forward this budget cycle, because we are going to get continued requests as to why (we) are not entertaining the Homestead Exemption,” said Martinez. “We need to have that briefing to clearly demonstrate to our citizens that the 20 percent Homestead Exemption is going to cost us $35.5 million, and it is going to be very difficult. I think it’s important that we have that briefing during this budget cycle.” Sponsor Tovo agreed, saying she thought it would be better to discuss the proposition in the context of this year’s budget session. Leffingwell clarified that he had “no problem with any of that,” but pointed out that Council work sessions tended to be full without briefings, and predicted “folks would probably be bailing out” of the work session around noon, regardless of what was being discussed.


Friday, August 1, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Fire Marshal reclassifies six positions

Five Travis County Fire Marshal deputy assistants and one assistant will move from the county’s classified pay scale to the Peace Officer Pay Scale starting Sept. 1. The Travis County Commissioners Court approved the motion Tuesday, with Pct. 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty voting no. Commissioner Ron Davis abstained and Commissioner Bruce Todd was absent. The move in pay scales would increase pay to these six positions by a combined $33,392 for the 2015 fiscal year. The move takes effect one month before the fiscal year begins so that the Fire Marshal’s office may begin posting to fill vacant positions. Todd Osbourne with the Human Resources Management Department said the Fire Marshal’s office has had trouble filling these positions with qualified applicants due to the low salary.


Friday, August 1, 2014 by Michael Kanin

County Commissioners OK Code changes

The Travis County Commissioners Court unanimously approved two motions to change parts of the County Code this week. Caitlin Brown, policy director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, asked last week to amend parts of the Drug and Alcohol Policy to encourage, rather than discipline, employees seeking help for substance abuse through the HR department. The code did not previously differentiate from on-the job policy violations and those seeking help without violating the policy during working hours. The code will now allow employees to self-disclose without any disciplinary action. The court also approved revising the code to include a Catastrophic Sick Leave Policy. Employees can opt-in to donate hours into an annual pool and get extra paid time-off hours, after they use all of their sick leave hours, in case of injury or illness. Once hours are donated to the pool, they are not returned to the employee.


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