Page Three: Hell in a Handbasket
or, the Worst of Austin
A week in the life of local government
Education Is Bad for the Economy
First came the strident campaign hammering the AISD board of trustees not to call for a tax-hike election (see "Bowing to Business Wheels, AISD Cans Tax Hike" for details). Now, I will note that I'm no big fan of AISD administration as a whole, but they're already working pretty hard on trimming what fat remains in the Forgione-era miasma that is the district's West Sixth Street HQ, and the firestorm that came down on teachers' heads for daring to propose a cost-of-living raise – and perhaps an extra $50-a-year uniform allowance for cafeteria workers earning $7.25 an hour – was way, way out of proportion to what was being discussed (and counter to opinion polls indicating that a solid majority of residents actually favor such a move).
Listen to the drumbeat of unsigned Statesman editorials over the last few weeks: "More action, less talk on education" (Aug. 9); "Austin school district's sharing of information 'needs improvement'" (Aug. 13); "For Austin taxpayers' sake, consider alternative tacks" (Aug. 14); "Raise taxpayer awareness first" (Aug. 18); "More spending, better schools?" (Aug. 20); and triumphantly, "Austin school trustees were right to hold the line on taxes, scrutinize spending" (Aug. 25). And let's not forget Ken Herman's thumb-sucker making fun of Liberty Hill for honoring its state spelling champions alongside its state football honors: "Can Liberty Hill kids earn letters in letters, too?" (Aug. 19). Okay, we get it. Public schools are where we get UT football recruits, and those minimum-wage cafeteria workers. But academics? Why bother?
Actually, though, that wasn't the low point on this front. That would be Monday's AISD board meeting, when attorney John Blazier, claiming to "represent the business community" (I run a couple of businesses, and no one asked me), thundered that "the business community will spend money to oppose you," because it can't afford to pay more in school taxes. There are our spending priorities, hidden in plain sight.
What Simon Wants, Simon Gets
Next up: the Domain, and Simon Properties' next round of demands is wending its way through the rubber-stamping process this week. Tuesday night, the Planning Commission, clearly perturbed, basically threw up its hands and said: "Well, whatever they want. They're going to keep coming back, and back, and back, and they're going to build whatever the hell they want anyway, so who are we to try to put a muzzle on this beast?" The issues are way too complicated to get to the bottom of here (see "City Hall Hustle" for some scratches on the surface), but here are some of the lowlights from this round:
• Impervious cover: It was set under the development agreement at a stringent, apparently onerous 80%. Yeah, that sounds about right for a tract that sits in the Walnut Creek and Shoal Creek watersheds and partly atop the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone. But now Simon wants 83%, and can't understand why that might be an issue. Remember "a deal is a deal"? Apparently that concept applies only to the public's rights and interests. When a developer wants to change a deal, then it's a different story. Likewise, when developers (or polluters) cry about a lack of "certainty" in applicable regulations, they mean their rights should be certain but their obligations are always subject to change.
• Parkland: Well, it was part of the original agreement, but that's being waived now, until (unless?) the next phase of residential development gets built. This, despite the fact that this area was identified in the Parks and Recreation Department master plan as one that's most in need of parkland. But, all right, if we insist, they'll give in and repromise to dedicate the parkland if we give them the extra impervious cover. Well, not actually dedicate the parkland, but agree to do so someday. Well, not promise in writing, but, hey, they're good for it, aren't they? (Notably, what was going to be a straight-up land swap is now back to being incorporated as a "restrictive covenant," which means they can go ahead and break the deal in the future, but if they do, and someone remembers, and calls them on it, it could be basis for legal action against them, after the fact. Swell.)
• Bike lanes: Also part of the original agreement was the promise that these would be incorporated into the plan. Since then, the Bicycle Master Plan was adopted, stating that in case of a zoning change (such as this one), bike lanes would indeed be required (even if they hadn't already been required, as was the case here). But okay, again, as with the parkland, Simon will agree to reconsider bike lanes in exchange for the new impervious cover. But they're not going to put them in. That's okay with everyone, isn't it?
• Big Box Ordinance: Yes, we passed one, and yes, it ought to apply to the Domain, but Simon doesn't want to comply with things like public hearings and notification of neighbors, so they don't have to: exempt. So Nordstrom gets to go in with no scrutiny? Well, no, Nordstrom seems to have backed out of the running, but if anyone else wants to bring in a megastore, the door is wide open. Anyone? Anyone? Are you listening up in Bentonville? Anywhere else in town, you'd have to comply with compatibility standards, design standards – all that messy public process stuff. But not here. Rah!
• Level playing field with other small businesses around town who'd love to get the same goodies and exemptions: Yeah, right.
And, oh, yeah, we will continue to pay them millions of dollars in tax money to keep doing this to us, for the next 20 years or so. Everyone gave up on that fight long ago, so live with it.
Let's put it this way: If the Austin Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, Environment Texas, the Gray Panthers, Liveable City, and Public Citizen (not to mention Bill Spelman, Laura Morrison, and Chris Riley) are all vehemently aligned with firebrands ChangeAustin.org and the Save Our Springs Alliance on the same side of an issue, you'd think that would carry some weight.
But no, apparently not.
As environmental reasons not to continue this folly continue to pile up (see "No Surprises in City's Answer to WTP4 Suit"), a slim but dogged council majority (Lee Leffingwell, Mike Martinez, Randi Shade, and Sheryl Cole: Remember those names; you will get a chance to vote on them soon enough) continues to vote for millions of dollars a month in new spending on WTP4, even as peak water usage has continued to drop since its high point in 2001 (yes, that's nine years ago). This week's flash point is the public hearing today (Thursday, Aug. 26, 4pm, at City Council Chambers), wherein the council seems set to approve new water rate hikes. This is bringing out the anti-tax zealots and those who think the hikes should be more targeted to heavy users, with conservation incentives for residents (and businesses, presumably) to use less water.
But a constant, underlying refrain (dare we hope that this is not borne out in the actual event?) is that this revenue increase is going to fund WTP4 construction and the huge new debt service that it will require at the same time that the water utility is cutting back on conservation measures and on long-overdue repairs to its profligate leaky infrastructure, which have been quite successful in bringing about equally overdue reductions in our city's disturbingly large per-capita water usage. The circular logic, of course, is that such reductions mean less water sold for AWU, less revenue, less need for the new plant, etc. Now, if that were the direction we were heading, I'm all for some rate hikes: If we have to pay more per gallon of water to help use less water overall, bring 'em on. With the "WTP 4" in charge of council direction-making, though, I don't think that's what's in the wind.
So, does all that put you in the mood for next week's "Best of Austin" issue? It sure does for me: Nothing but good things to celebrate about what is, after all, still a pretty great place to live, and I promise not to be such a curmudgeon next time around. Don't let the bastards get you down, right? Meanwhile, come on out Sunday and sample some hot sauce, hot foods, and cold treats at the 20th annual Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival (Waterloo Park, Aug. 29, 11am-5pm; there's a lot more info in the pull-out center section).