Election security in the time of Covid-19
You could be forgiven for feeling like you have whiplash from trying to keep up with the battle over voting by mail in Texas. Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir is slated to address this issue and more at the next meeting of Common Ground for Texans. DeBeauvoir will “explore questions concerning election security for the July 14 runoff (and special election) and the November 3 general election. How have vote-by-mail ballots been processed in the past? What problems, if any, have arisen and what has been done to address those problems? What changes to the process will be made in response to the Covid-19 pandemic?” The meeting, which will be held via Zoom videoconferencing, will be moderated by Mike Ignatowski and audience questions are welcomed. Saturday, June 13, 2-4 p.m. Check Facebook for the call-in details.
Zoning Zooms by
Council members and Jerry Rusthoven, the leader of the Planning and Zoning Department, made quick work of the zoning agenda at Thursday’s City Council meeting. Four cases were postponed, three of them to July 30 and one to next Thursday. Council also approved seven cases on all three readings without discussion. One of those cases, Plaza Volente Residential, included annexation of property on North FM 620 in the Bull Creek Watershed. No one spoke on any of the cases and the vote was 10-0, with Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison off the dais. Harper-Madison did have considerable tech trouble in the morning; however, her problems were nothing like those of Council Member Kathie Tovo, who sounded like Minnie Mouse from time to time. Tovo told her colleagues that her problem with the app was probably caused by a prank from a family member.
City to create park at Tillery Street pecan grove
The Austin Parks and Recreation Department announced Thursday that it had acquired part of the Tillery Street pecan grove slated for development as affordable housing. According to the parks department, the Austin Housing Finance Corporation will sell one or two acres of the 5.15 acres owned by the city in the Govalle neighborhood, which will allow for the preservation of the pecan grove and the creation of a park for the neighborhood.
City Manager Cronk addresses protests
Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk has released a statement about the recent protests. The statement is copied in full below:
“Over the past weeks and months, our city – and more broadly, our nation – has again been forced to confront a tragic loss of human life. Our community has expressed a range of emotions. Many are justifiably outraged, sad and anxious, and for some, even fearful for themselves and their families.
While we are all rightly disturbed by much of what we’ve seen, I’ve also witnessed the strength and courage on the part of our city to face these issues head on and continue having the difficult conversations necessary to confront our deeply troubling history of inequity, injustice and systemic racism. I personally have struggled with the complexity of this moment and realized that our feelings can’t and shouldn’t be limited to one or two choices. I believe that we can condemn the disgusting abuse of power, authority and trust by some officers while at the same time respect and appreciate those who choose policing as a calling and treat others with the dignity and respect we all deserve.
I also acknowledge that for far too many in our community, lived experience has left them feeling hopeless, afraid and convinced that nothing will ever change. To those people, I say, please don’t lose hope. I see you, I hear you and I need – and want – your help and leadership. I want everyone in Austin to know that I am committed to continuing the hard work, having the difficult conversations, and finding a way forward that rebuilds that loss of trust while improving our police force to ensure it is reflective of the community values Austin holds dear. I am committed. My executive staff is committed. Our chief of police is committed. And I believe that our community is committed.
It is my heartfelt desire that one day, we are able to look back on these times as the catalyst that brought about the changes we know are so badly needed, but that can only happen if we come together as a city and work as partners to create the community we know we’re capable of being.”
City to offer free 15-minute parking
The Austin Transportation Department is unlocking downtown meters for pickup and drop-off of food and other goods. Beginning June 8, new “food priority zones” will get up to two free 15-minute parking sessions that people can access by using the codes FREE15ATX1 or FREE15ATX2 on the ParkATX app. According to a June 3 memo, everyone gets two 15-minute sessions every 24 hours “to incentivize efficient system use.” In addition, the city is working to expand affordable downtown off-street parking options as part of its affordable parking program, with $5 parking at the convention center and other options.
Darrell Alexander joins the city as building services officer
Darrell Alexander will start his new position as building services officer for the city of Austin on Monday, June 8. According to the city’s announcement about the new hire, “the BSO helps support the Government That Works For All strategic outcome and is responsible for facilities planning, custodial, carpentry, plumbing, HVAC, electrical, security, locksmith, property management, safety, project management, and mail services for city facilities.” Alexander previously worked at Sodexo Inc., where he held various facility management positions since 2012. He also “spent several years with Kellogg, Brown, and Root Government Operations as a deputy project manager providing base life support to more than a dozen military bases in the Middle East. He was instrumental in the logistical planning and execution of the successful movement of KBR personnel and property out of Iraq. Additionally, he managed the final phase of 12 site mergers with a budget of over $800 million.” Alexander, who is a retired U.S. Army veteran, holds a master’s in public administration from Norwich University and a bachelor’s degree in business administration from St. Edward’s University. “I am excited to welcome Mr. Alexander to our management team,” Deputy City Manager Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde said. “His extensive experience in facility management operations makes him a valuable asset, positioned to expertly lead the city forward in its building services initiatives.”
Two consumers contest Texas Gas Service rates
Two Austin consumers told an administrative law judge at the Texas Railroad Commission Tuesday that the commission should not approve a settlement agreement between Texas Gas Service and lawyers for Austin and other Central Texas cities. Consumer and environmental advocate Paul Robbins repeated complaints he has made before City Council; in particular, the fact that Austin Energy and Austin Water customers are not required to pay extra fees in order to expand service to new customers. Instead, builders are required to pay for infrastructure for new customers. Heather Sin, a low-income resident of East Austin, told Judge Dee Marlo Chico that she uses very little gas, yet she is required to pay a monthly fee considerably greater than fees for the amount of gas she uses. She also complained about the difficulty of figuring out the complex rate structure and how to participate in opposing the company’s request for increased funding. “I really hope some regulatory agency would take a look at what’s going on here. It’s really sad,” she said, adding that $25 a month may not seem like much for many people, but for low-income people it is significant. She also complained about a natural disaster rider that the company was trying to add to customers’ bills. However, Kate Norman, attorney for TGS, said the parties did not agree to the rider, so it is not part of the rates. Texas Gas Service has lowered its proposed monthly fee from the current $18.81 a month to $16 a month and Larry Graham, who represents the utility, points out that the company has to maintain its pipelines regardless of the weather and how much gas customers are using. The company is scheduled to go before the three-member Texas Railroad Commission on Aug. 4 for the final decision. Tuesday’s meeting was conducted via Zoom.
Code office not swamped with visitors
As part of the city’s plan to reopen various departments for in-person services, the Austin Code Department opened its on-site cashier’s office on Monday to accept payment of fees and penalties. However, according to Isis Lopez, acting public information and marketing manager for the department, there were no visitors to the cashier’s office on Monday or Tuesday. (Although one person is scheduled to visit the office today.) The cashier’s office, which is open from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. daily, will begin accepting application and registration fees for licensing programs on June 15. In addition, all administrative hearings have been rescheduled beginning July 15. While a large number of employees are still working from home, according to a memo from Code Director José Roig, the department is considering a number of options for in-person visits. Those include visits by appointment only, and walk-in visits with a waiting area seating people 8-10 feet apart. Staff will focus on Covid-19 safety precautions in the waiting room and during the customer intake process, the memo says. For more information, see the department’s website.
Making Austin’s intersections safer
North Lamar Boulevard at Payton Gin Road and Braker Lane at Stonelake Boulevard are two North Austin intersections that are notorious for their high incidence of car crashes. This week the Austin Transportation Department is starting construction on safety and mobility improvements at the two locations “designed to reduce the number of serious injury crashes and increase safety for all road users, including people riding bikes and walking.” The changes at North Lamar/Payton Gin include “new shared-use paths for people walking and riding bikes, new high-visibility crosswalks, traffic signal upgrades, and a new median on North Lamar near the intersection.” At Braker Lane/Stonelake Boulevard, planned improvements include modifying the existing medians and adding a second left-turn lane for drivers turning south on Stonelake Boulevard. Both projects are anticipated to take up to six months to complete. Thanks to the 2016 Mobility Bond, six Intersection Safety/Vision Zero projects have already been completed.
AISD hosts conversations about school reopenings
As almost everyone knows, schools have been closed since March 13 because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Whether or not school campuses will reopen in the fall remains an open question. Austin Independent School District has assembled a task force of staff and community members to examine the pros and cons of reopening its schools and facilities for the 2020-21 school year. As part of that planning process, the district is convening a series of eight community conversations to get community members’ input. Each conversation circle, as they are called, will start with a short presentation, followed by a one-hour conversation in small groups. “The meetings will conclude with a 15-minute facilitated question-and-answer session with academic leadership.” The full schedule of conversation circles is below. In order to attend, you will need to have Zoom installed on your computer or device.
- Use this link to join the meeting
- Meeting ID: 928 4720 8844
- Password: AISD
- Join by phone: 1 346 248 7799
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.
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.
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.
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’s oldest steam unit, Decker Plant Unit 1, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.