The Daily Hustle: 10/14/10 (Updated)

Employee pensions, Downtown development dominate

It's 2014: Do you know where your Downtown Rail is?
It's 2014: Do you know where your Downtown Rail is? (From Trammell Crow's 2008 RFP respsonse. Courtesy City of Austin.)

No real fireworks at City Council today, but instead, the protracted fizzle of a couple multi-faceted issues: changes to the city's pension and retirement program, and the development deal for Austin Energy's Downtown Control Center, just west of City Hall.

After you check the burn ban status, join us below the fold.

Some grace notes from the housekeeping preoccupying the meeting's early minutes, with Mike Martinez replacing long-time Environmental Board member Phil Moncada with Eva Hernandez, the consensus appointment of Transmission Entertainment principal Graham Williams to the Waller Creek Citizen Advisory Committee (presumably to music venue concerns about creekside development), and creation of the Airport Boulevard Advisory Group to eye the thoroughfare's form-based code revamp. And minus much discussion, staff recommended Gateway Planning Group took the contract. (Answering our question from yesterday, McCann Adams Studio was deep-sixed from the bidding “as a result of the violation of the Anti-Lobbying and Procurement Ordiance,” according to late agenda backup.)

Taking up much of the morning was the discussion of whether to create a two-tier system for pension and retirement benefits for city employees, preserving the current system for current employees, and upping the requirements for new ones. The decision put council in a politically perilous place, essentially asking them to go to bat for a constituency that doesn't exist yet. In his questioning of staff, Bill Spelman focused on the funds' current requirements, and how they impact the city's ability to give current retirees a cost of living adjustment, a change that hasn't occurred since 2000. Staff said COL raises could be offered one the system reached a 30-year amortization period – the amount of time it will take to fund all plans – which should occur in 2012 with the new system, assuming a healthy 7.75% return on investments (itself anything but certain). Comparing that against the literally infinite amortization period the city has now, Spelman moved approval. “I always hate going against the wishes of AFSCME, of which I am a member,” he said, but offered the the motions was the only “prudent” way to get COL increases to existing retirees anytime soon. Lee Leffingwell underscored the change, noting there was “no effect whatsoever on existing city employees,” and no effect on current city retiree, except that they might get a cost of living raise.” The changes must now clear the Legislature in their upcoming session, and wouldn't take hold until January 2012 – so get those resumes in now!

After council returned from executive session discussing the very items they were about to take up, they moved to the AE control center agreement. Paul Robbins restated many of his arguments against the deal, and other pro-rail speakers voiced their concerns that the development agreement might handcuff future rail efforts at the site, or at neighboring Seaholm.

Fitting, since the city's rail plans – or lack thereof – nearly derailed the item's passage. Hard to believe, but the RFP for the tract was issued back in 2008, around the time of the Green Water Treatment Plant's decommissioning, and the urban/commuter rail cum trolley discussion has done nothing but heat up since then, especially in regards to what to do around Seaholm. And per Robbins' complaints, with AE not yet closed up shop on the plot, and remediation required afterward, shovels won't move until 2014 – prompting some on council to ask what the rush was (a feeling the Hustle sympathizes with.) “What's the advantage of doing this four years in advance, versus two years in advance?” asked Spelman. “I don't see why we have to do a deal four years in advance.”

Despite all of Austin's planning fetish – the Comp Plan, the Downtown Plan, CAMPO concepts, etc. – the meeting highlighted the city's inability to keep their plans – what's the word? – planned. “When we face decisions like this,” said Sheryl Cole, “we have no idea” of the overall transportation picture Downtown, including cost. “I think it is the full intention of council, in the long term, to put the city on the course for rail Downtown,” she continued. “As we plot that course, we would like to see that presented to [council] committees step by step by step.” While adding her words were “not intended to be any kind of reprimand … it's hard to wrap you brains around any of the implications … we have not asked, or been briefed, on a step by step basis.”

Moving approval of the contract, Chris Riley tried to assuage concerns, noting that while the city hadn't completed its rail plans, “we're always free to pursue discussion about that with the developers” (that would be Trammell Crow,) something he was “confident” they would be amenable to. “We will still be free to peruse options in the future, should we decide we want to pursue some connection across the site,” he surmised – words the Hustle will hold him to.

Laura Morrison then spoke, saying “with some trepidation and reservation, I feel like it would be more appropriate to not go forward at this time.” However, hers was the lone holdout, the measure passing 6-1.

All aboard … we hope.

Original post: Hey there, the Hustle here, about to head downtown to City Hall. Expect an update in this space later today, but until then, bide your time checking out the meeting's preview coverage, not to mention our our bountiful news section this week. See ya later!

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The Daily Hustle, City Council, Downtown, Development, Austin Energy, Bill Spelman, Chris Riley, Seaholm, Rail, Trammell Crow, Retirement, Pensions, City of Austin employees, Austin Energy Control Center

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