City Council: NI deal approved
Although there were some generic objections to any form of "corporate subsidies," the proposed economic incentives agreement with NI received mostly laudatory testimony from public witnesses, for the company's commitment to creating high-paying jobs as well as a wage floor of $11/hour or prevailing wage (whichever is higher), including for construction workers on the expansion project. Staff informed Council that NI had also agreed to add workers compensation coverage (not guaranteed in Texas), and Austin Interfaith (among other witnesses) praised the deal as an improvement on previous agreements. There was praise for NI's STEM education outreach program, and a Chamber of Commerce spokesman applauded the chance to approve a deal for a "home-grown success story."
The NI commitment to provide workers comp (added by amendment) evoked testimony that such a standard should be added to similar agreements going forward. Staff also reported that the question of in-town/out-of-town hiring –- raised during last week's briefing -- is in fact reflected in the webLOCI fiscal matrix, in that it assumes that 1,000 new jobs (however filled) ultimately mean 600 new city residents (i.e., because of the consequent job-chain effects). In sum, scarcely a discouraging word was heard, none from the dais, and the final vote was 7-0.
In other business, the zoning change at 4th & Guadalupe for the Gables Residential/Hotel ZaZa project eventually passed 4-3, but not without some rough sailing reflected in that vote, narrower than the 6-1 of the first two readings. The developers were asking for additional height allowed by CBD-CURE zoning, but Kathie Tovo and then Laura Morrison previously suggested there should be more consideration of affordable units (not mandatory under current ordinance). Thursday Bill Spelman echoed that concern and raised another potential problem: an allegedly poor safety record on previous Gables projects, raised by Workers Defense Project. Gables spokesman Richard Suttle disputed those allegations and said they had nothing to do with the zoning case, and Mayor Lee Leffingwell reiterated an earlier warning that requiring a developer to provide separate benefits for a zoning change borders on illegal "contract zoning." That question wouldn't be resolved Thursday night, and the zoning change was granted, but the issue continues to simmer.
The ride-sharing matter -- hot at the moment because of SXSW and its thousands of attendees -- drew some fireworks, despite the fact that the resolution would only ask the city manager to look into the practice and see what might be done to address it. Looming in the background, however, were the city's cease-and-desist orders issued to Heyride and then its successor Sidecar, for trying to promote an app-based taxi service under the guise of peer-to-peer sharing. Spokesmen for the drivers and the cab companies called attention to the illegal situation -- and Council members responded (and voted 7-0) that they have no intention of legalizing commercial ride-shares, but want to research the existing practices and see what might need to be addressed.