Beside the Point: All the Arguments That Fit
City council agenda packed with volatile materials
There should be plenty available for disputation today (Thursday) at City Council, beginning with what look to be the headline items – more money for Water Treatment Plant No. 4 (Items 4 and 8), and more money for Visa Inc. (Item 114). The WTP cost-overrun question – to consider an additional $15.5 million (about 4%) to the currently $359 million completion cost – is nominally on the consent agenda, but the best guess here is that WTP critics on and off the dais will want to take another pound (or at least a few ounces) of flesh from the hides of Austin Water staff before the vote to approve the money. Amy Smith made the case last week ("Then There's This: Water for Sale," Nov. 30) that everybody should have known that the "Chamber of Commerce-driven boondoggle" was going to cost more than advertised, and more specifically that recent project cutbacks effectively reflect much higher overruns than the $15.5 million. AW's backup materials argue that they don't think they'll need all the extra money, and that some added costs were both unforeseen and necessary. "Some valuable investments that were not included in the original project budget have contributed to the cost increase," reads the AW background detail. "These key investments include measures to minimize community disruptions and ensure that the project is protective of the environment." The Water and Wastewater Commission deadlocked on a recommendation, so Council will have to stick its neck out all on its own.
Similarly, the heat on the Visa deal – an incentives grant of $1.56 million over 10 years, tied to a state Texas Enterprise Fund grant of $7.9 million – has escalated in the wake of The New York Times series this week identifying the state of Texas as the biggest player in the national economic incentives game, seldom with the results trumpeted by the Governor's Office (see "Point Austin: Questions for Visa," Nov. 30). The Times series even goosed the Austin American-Statesman into a tsk-tsking editorial, arguing that local hires (projected at 70% of the 794 promised) should be guaranteed, and that "local" should be defined as within Austin city limits, not just the five-county area – a standard never broached before and one sure to make the high-dollar job-seekers contemplated in this deal raise their eyebrows. ("I can't buy a mansion in West Lake Hills?") Frankly, I'd consider annexing the whole lot of them – or maybe just digging a moat, with entry fees at drawbridges – but I doubt that concept of metropolitan relations will win many official converts (or would be rational public policy, for that matter). The city is better about enforcing its legislated standards (and cost/benefit matrix) on these deals than is the state – but those nuances will likely be lost on the most vocal opponents.
Beyond these two headliners (the Visa matter is one public hearing among a scheduled 10, including the return of East Riverside planning, so, as they say on the TxDOT signs: expect delays, or at least some postponements), there's plenty more grist for the public mill. Judging from Tuesday's work session, it's likely that we haven't heard the last of the Texas Facilities Commission's "Capitol Area Development Strategy" (TFC's latest grand plan to redevelop half a dozen land sites around the city; see "State and City Redevelopment? Hold That Thought"). Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole is pushing hard for an interlocal agreement to "get a seat at the table," but affected neighborhoods (and the state's Sunset Commission) are recommending forbearance and Council Member Laura Morrison was highly skeptical on Tuesday – it's not at all apparent that the rest of the Council shares Cole's sense of urgency.
Another potentially vexed question is the Council revisit of the semi-notorious Barton Springs Zone redevelopment ordinance, an attempt adjust the Save Our Springs Ordinance to allow denser commercial development over the aquifer in return for environmental mitigation (Item 66). Controversial when it was enacted, it's largely gone unused, with staff split on whether the primary reason is the recession or the limited number of potential applications. This resolution would simply direct the city manager to put together a proposal to revise the ordinance (and expand its reach) and return early next year; it might strike early sparks with folks who opposed any SOS amendment in the first place.
If all that's not enough, the morning briefings (Item 78 and 79) will be an update on the Office of Sustainability, and an Austin Energy update on its electric vehicle program (BTP wants to know: Can everybody have one?). And speaking of AE, for once Citizens Communication will not be mostly defaulted to the aluminum-hat brigade; half a dozen folks, including Lanetta Cooper, Jeff Jack, and Tom "Smitty" Smith, will address a pending proposal for an independent board to run AE. That idea gained some traction after the prolonged rate debate (and looming rate case at the state Public Utility Commission), but there is growing opposition to an unelected board as too remote and unresponsive to citizens.
The featured live music at 5:30 is Lady Bird Lake running trail favorite woode wood, who apparently favors lower-case letters and nubile ladies: See much more at www.woodewood.com.
Amy Smith and "Then There's This" return next week.