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The Final Curtain

Max and Brigid Did It Their Way

By Alex de Marban, Fri., June 21, 1996

There's a mood that's unique to council meetings -- a kaleidoscope of moods really -- spun by surges of hope and failure, of regret and relief, and propelled by sundry other passions that escape comprehension. Life-or-death importance is attached to things quickly forgotten, and the preferred order of business is progress. But at times the machine slows, allowing reflection in the midst of madness.

In an hour-long ceremony before the curtain closed on their council careers, Max Nofziger and Brigid Shea drew a final tribute from their colleagues, people with whom they spent a good portion of their lives but couldn't fully trust. Lauded by Mayor Bruce Todd and Pro Tem Gus Garcia were Nofziger's nine years of commitment to the environment, the arts, downtown, and his leadership through the economic crisis of the late Eighties. Shea's farewell was less enthusiastic but equally kind. In a drier eulogy, Todd described her efforts to protect Barton Creek and to re-use Bergstrom housing for the poor. Disregarded was Shea's sound fiscal conservatism, she being perhaps the stingiest of all the councilmembers, as witnessed in her lonely opposition to a publicly funded baseball stadium last year and her tireless crusade against publicly funded growth in the suburbs.

Shea maintained that chintziness even to her last meeting, filibustering against a measure allowing the Circle C empire a $2.5 million bond issuance. Although state legislation in 1995 christened the Circle C MUDs as sovereign, removing them from the city's development regulations and preventing their annexation, the MUDS must still win city approval for debt issuances. According to city lawyers, Austin can reject the issuance only if Circle C violates its contract with the city, and that hasn't occurred.

Nonetheless, Shea stormed on, spurred by regret that Austin taxpayers are helping pay for the recreational pursuits of Circle C residents. You see, Slaughter Creek Park and the bicycle track known as the veloway, both within Circle C and therefore outside the city, are maintained by Austin taxpayers. To stall the issuance, Shea played every trick in the book, even seeking ways to shift the maintenance costs onto Circle C, and begging her colleagues to see her reasoning. But alas, it was quibbling in vain. In the end, only Nofziger joined the resistance with an abstention.

For the most part, the past three years have been like that, with Shea and Nofziger taking the lone stand on tough environmental issues, helping establish them as the leaders of the council's progressive/green majority. Indeed, in their last meeting, the two led the majority in passing a measure to create an environmental czar at the city, who will oversee the environmental efforts and commitments of the city's departments. Bruce Todd left the dais on the vote, and Ronney Reynolds and Eric Mitchell voted no.

Only the best is remembered in parting, and last Thursday's farewell ceremony was no different. Overlooked was Shea and Nofziger's failure to help keep the environmental feeling of 1992 alive, something that arguably could have been possible if the two had prepared a strong replacement ordinance after the Save Our Springs ordinance was struck down in court. So running underneath the festivity was the myriad of emotions again. With the appreciation for their accomplishments was a relief that things were changing, an anticipation of the new council, and the new energy they'll bring.

With little ado, the council also approved another sweetheart deal for The Friends of Eric Mitchell, an informal group seemingly presided over by the former chieftain of the Neighborhood, Housing and Conservation Office, Gene Watkins. Among other duties, Watkins -- who with Mitchell's help last february secured a position as a consultant on the SCIP II housing contract with the city -- is also a consultant for the Rites of Passage Development Corporation, a group headed by the Rev. Sterling Lands II of the Greater Calvary Missionary Baptist Church.

Once again, Watkins asked and he did receive. For a mere pittance, Rites of Passage wrested ownership of the Meadows Glen Apartments in Northeast Austin from the city's Austin Housing Finance Corporation (AHFC). Rev. Lands says that Rites of Passage wanted control of the apartments to make them more affordable to low-income families, and to combat the high crime that encircles the complex by creating social programs like community and family building focus groups. "We're looking to design and help the neighbors interact so that area is drug and violence free," Lands says.

But while the goals are righteous, the path is costly. The city sold the 41-unit complex for $342,000, though it's appraised at $733,000. To help Rites of Passage make the purchase, the city provided a $342,000 loan, repayable over 30 years at 0% interest. The loss of the complex will cost the AHFC about 6% of its budget for next year, since the complex earned $6,000 a month in profit. The Rites of Passage also got another $100,000 loan from the city to help create an operating reserve for long-term maintenance needs. The loan is forgivable if Rites of Passage fulfills its plan to rent out the apartments to low-and-middle income residents over the next five years, and if they hire an experienced management company.

That's where things get murky. Rites of Passage will drop the rent to an average of $250 a month, from the previous range of $332 to $550. Under the city's rates, the apartments generated $16,396 a month in gross rents. Under Rites of Passage's rates, the complex will generate $10,250 a month, about what the city pays to the management company, Capstone Real Estate Services. Since Rites of Passage plans to keep that management company, the group should just about break even once the new rates are effective. That means the group will not get the $6,000 in monthly revenue that the city did. Not that it should, since Rites of Passage is a non-profit organization. But the city's rates could apply for some time, since under the Federal Uniform Relocation Act the current residents can not be forced out. Staff estimates that it could take as many as two years for the current residents to leave, which could mean the apartments will continue to make a profit until the new rates are phased in.

However, current Neighborhood Housing and Conservation Office (NHCO) head Bill Cook says that Rites of Passage will not make a profit because staff will require higher loan payments until the new rates are phased in. But as of vote time, neither staff nor the councilmembers knew how that would work. Maybe that's because Eric Mitchell threw the item in as an addendum to the council agenda only three days before the meeting. Watkins refused any explanation of the project, except to imply that The Austin Chronicle is racist for investigating it.

At the meeting, Shea did manage to question NHCO's Cook as to why the city should sell for a song one of its profitable ventures. Cook responded that it was an opportunity to provide cheaper rents to low-income residents. But despite the lack of info, what gave the item credence was a co-sponsorship from Gus Garcia. Garcia is the conscience of the council, and if he says things are above-board, then you can expect little opposition. Perhaps that's why Shea and Nofziger left the dais instead of voting "No." In their absence, the item passed unanimously.

This week in council: no meeting.

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