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Council: Getting A Round Tuit

A crowded agenda as CMs head into budget season

By Michael King, Fri., April 18, 2014

Chris Riley
Chris Riley
Photo by John Anderson

With President Obama in town last Thurs­day – making history and causing highway gridlock in pretty much equal measure – it's understandable that City Council postponed much of that day's agenda to take part in the Civil Rights Summit, where Oba­ma declared optimism the word of the day, and everybody held crossed hands and swayed along with Mavis Staples, singing "We Shall Overcome." That's not likely to be the theme music today (April 17), and it ain't gonna be "Kumbaya" neither. Members left themselves plenty to do this week, including the return of the endlessly contentious issue of "vested development rights" (i.e., grandfathering) and the proposed historic zoning of the Baylor House ("Then There's This," April 11). There will also be beer, at least in principle.

Council did manage to address two thorny questions last week: developing a mid-year budget adjustment policy, and initiating a revision of the SMART housing criteria, that is, the standards for incentivizing affordable housing, which must be "safe, mixed-income, accessible, reasonably priced, and transit-oriented."

The budget fix was a response to controversy over last year's mid-year spending (mostly to sustain affordable housing projects) and some generic grumbling over proposals to spend some of this year's "surplus" ahead of actual budget season. Since the money involved is a tiny supplement to the General Fund, and budget season begins next week – the first budget work session is April 24 – this may have been little ado about not very much. Nevertheless, there's now a written policy in place (at least until next year) that, except for emergencies, will make it slightly more complicated to allocate new funding in the middle of the budget year.

The SMART revision began as a proposed amendment by CM Chris Riley – to reinforce the "T" by requiring that city-supported affordable housing be located within walking distance of existing mass transit. After much discussion, Bill Spelman proposed widening the revision-to-be to consider the whole SMART policy, and the motion passed 5-2 (Laura Morri­son and Kathie Tovo voting no). The debatable question had become whether such a near-transit-only provision would remove whole swaths of potential neighborhoods – especially on the west side – for affordable housing (which definitely tells you something about Austin's mass transit system), but by the time the proposal returns as an ordinance, it might be only a tweak. (For more on SMARTness, see "Then There's This." )

Although Morrison was the strongest objector to Riley's proposal, there were several extended exchanges between Riley and Tovo that sounded ever so curiously like the kickoff to the District 9 campaign – the two incumbents are the only current members eligible for re-election, and will be running against each other there in the coming months.

Today, there will be plenty of grist for the public mill, although much of the fireworks may be off the dais and at the lecterns. The revised vested ("grandfathered") development rights ordinance (replacing the Project Duration Ordinance, which – according to Attorney General Greg Abbott – ran afoul of state law) already caused heartburn at the Planning Commission earlier this month, although they did grudgingly recommend it to Council. Environmentalists say the draft ordinance makes it much too easy for developers to hold ground with outmoded (and environmentally weak) land plans for years; development lobbyists complain that precisely the opposite is the case, and henceforth nobody will be able to build anything anywhere. That could mean Council will consider the draft a workable compromise, but it says here there will be plenty of verbiage before the decision.

The Baylor House hearing will also require plenty of talk. It concerns a humble but important Clarksville historical home – at least in the eyes of the Historic Landmark Commission, if not the Planning Commis­sion, which made no recommendation. The current homeowner wants to raze it, preservationists want to save it, and both sides will be heard.

Other proposals that will likely receive additional scrutiny: expansion of the Austin Regional Intelligence Center to include more local PDs (call that one the "Slippery Slope" proposal); a resolution to initiate an ordinance against housing discrimination based on "source of income" (i.e., Section 8 vouchers – Austin Interfaith will be out in force); an inventory review of city properties for affordable housing potential (seems like we've done that one before); a race/gender "pay equity" monitoring proposal for city contractors; and a hearing on a new Lake Austin zoning overlay. (There's more, but we're already exhausted.)

A proclamation will declare it Jazz Apprec­iation Month, and the musical honorees will be the sort-of-jazzy-if-you-squint Salesman.

And – if Council indeed gets around to it – there's also a public hearing scheduled for an ordinance to allow local breweries to sell beer and ale on-site. By that hour, it's likely everybody in the house will be more than ready for a tall one.

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