Kick Me, I'm From Austin

Visiting the Lege, City Council, and Bergstrom

This week let's rove around the local government and political scene, and see what we find. It won't be pretty at all. Attacks on the city's home rule powers at the Legislature continue. Our own state senator amended one of the anti-Austin bills so that it officially encourges a development agreement with Freeport-McMoRan. Consequently, Freeport's PUD deal could be back on the council agenda any day now, although city officials say there are no such plans at the present time. Meanwhile, the price of Austin's airport is going up while federal funding goes down, and an Austin state representative last week bluntly questioned the city's commitment to indigent health care at Brackenridge Hospital once it is taken over by Seton Medical Center.

At the Lege

First let's stop by the state capitol, where what the late Houston Post termed the Legislature "that strangled Austin" is in progress. Legislators from far flung areas, fueled with developer contributions, seek to punish Austin for its water quality initiatives. These attacks emanate from the same capitol out of which we have heard more than a century of blaring rhetoric about states' rights and local control.

It's horrific enough that the Legislature is so blatantly out to get the capital city. Even more outrageous, however, is that key officials elected to represent Austin are not taking the city's side, or at least not fighting very hard in the city's interest. Our mayor repeatedly says that we deserve what we are getting, because "we fail[ed] to agree to a reasonable course of action" i.e., approve a development agreement with Freeport-McMoRan. It's like he's wearing a "kick me" sign, was the analysis offered by one local resident.

Then there's Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, who scored on Austin's behalf last week when he managed to kill Representative Susan Combs' dangerous anti-annexation bill. Barrientos is now seeking support for his compromise proposal. On another front, however, the senator's actions concerning an anti-Austin bill that would directly benefit Freeport-McMoRan are very questionable. The bill in question is the so-called "water quality zone" bill sponsored in the Senate by Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio), and in the House by Ron Lewis (D-Mauriceville). The bill would allow developers with more than 1,000 acres in Austin's extraterritorial jurisidiction (ETJ) to declare their property a "water quality zone," and then basically be responsible for regulating their
own water quality. The City of Austin would have no authority. Other Texas cities will still be allowed to protect their water supply in their ETJs. Two chief beneficiaries of this law would be Freeport's Barton Creek PUD and Circle C Ranch. Barrientos' amendment specifically lists a number of measures which would be allowed in an agreement, including: "immunity from annexation" for 15 years; varying any watershed protection regulations; and "the provision of water and wastewater service to the property." Take particular note of that final clause. Freeport wants city sewage service. In the estimation of most wizened players, that's why they
keep trying to win city approval of their development even though they've claimed for five years that they can build without city approval.

The Barrientos amendment does not, and cannot, force the city to grant sewage service to Freeport. Neither the Legislature nor any federal court has that power. Another Wentworth bill comes close, however. It would allow Freeport to set up seven Municipal Utility Districts (MUDs) and issue bonds. This bill is widely believed to provide Freeport with the leverage to negotiate for city sewer service, and it is probably the most serious threat to the city of all the anti-Austin bills. The MUDs bill passed the Senate last week, with only Barrientos and Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) voting no. (For a look at how hard the city's legislative lobbyists are working against these types of attacks, see "On The Lege" this week.)

As a result of all this, the PUD agreement could be back on the council agenda soon, but it would have to be as an emergency - which wouldn't be the first time. The backdrop could be the specter of the Wentworth bill passing the House, and/or the May 8 court date in Freeport's federal suit against the city. The PUD deal, however, isn't on this week's agenda (April 27), and council meetings for the next week have been canceled. That leaves no council meetings before the suit goes to trial. (As reported in the "Naked City" column last week, the city has a new attorney in that suit, Jim George, who, amazingly, actually appears ready to fight in the city's interest.)

But it appears that Freeport is in no hurry right now. One reason may be that if the Barrientos amendment becomes law, it would provide the company with another hammer to hold over the council's head - give us a sewer and we'll comply with some of your laws, the ones we choose.

Before leaving this section, let's take another look at the oft-repeated argument that the council should approve a deal with Freeport PUD in order to stave off legislative attacks. First of all, the attacks are coming from more parties than just Freeport. Among other things, the Legislature is undoing deals the city made with developers years ago. For example, the developers and residents of many suburban MUDs have milked the city for millions in subsidies and now they want to avoid their end of the deal - annexation and the resulting city taxes. And if Freeport has such pull at the capitol, isn't it likely that they, too, will go back to the Legislature after they get their city sewer and get themselves out of any commitments they don't like?

Up, Up, and Away

Now it's on to the new Bergstrom airport, where the price is increasing while advertised federal funding is decreasing. It was announced last week that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is delaying disbursement of $30 million in funds that were earmarked for moving Del Valle schools that would be in the flight path of the new airport. The payments may be eliminated entirely.

Meanwhile, airport officials presented the council with what Councilmember Brigid Shea termed an "almost indecipherable" progress report. Shea added that her appointee to the Airport Advisory Board, who is a veteran in the aviation field, also had extreme difficulty in understanding the report. Among other things, Shea pointed out that officials gave three different figures on the cost of the terminal. Aviation Director Charles Gates explained that this was because parking was included in some calculations, and not in others. Other matters of confusion included the project schedule, various cost figures, the progress of contractors, and whether contractors' pay schedule is ahead of their work completion rate. For example, Shea said, she didn't understand the reason for a $600,000 overrun for architects Page, Southerland Page. Assistant City Manager Joe Lessard explained that the extra expense was incurred because city officials asked the architects to redesign portions of the airport to save money. Airport managers promised to return with better reports.

Despite the mind-numbing nature of the official report, a few key points are clear. The price is going up and federal funding is going down. The current price tag is $624.9 million, up from an original projection of $582.8 million. That's only a 7% increase, but then, the new airport is still in the planning stages.

Meanwhile, the airlines, who will pay much of the Bergstrom airport construction costs through fees and rentals, are balking at the price. The mayor accused the airlines of lobbying against the school relocation money at the FAA. It's unclear if that is the case, but they are definitely raising concerns about the cost. West Austin News columnist and former Austin City Councilmember Robert Barnstone got the early jump in reporting the airlines' costs concerns.

Barnstone, who was instrumental in stopping the airport from moving to Manor in the late 1980s, proposed in his April 13 column that the city cut costs by dropping plans for a second runway. The parallel/widely spaced runway is required by the FAA, and without it, the city would lose $90 million promised by the federal agency. The runway, however, costs $100 million. Barnstone argues that Austin is unlikely to ever generate enough traffic to justify the parallel runway, and says many airports don't have them, including Tokyo's Niarita Airport. The potential loss of further FAA funding for Del Valle school relocation was announced after Barnstone's column appeared, but it provides further fuel to his idea. The schools are in the flight path of the proposed parallel runway, not the current one.

A loss of FAA funding would bring another potential advantage, argues Barnstone. It would free Austin from the FAA regulation that all airport-generated revenues must go back into a city's aviation fund. In other words, profits from the airport could be transferred to the city's general fund, providing tax relief to the citizenry. That is, if there are profits by the time the airport is opened.

Meanwhile, State Representative Glen Maxey, in an unscheduled stop at the city council meeting, charged that city management is resisting efforts to include guarantees of continued indigent coverage into a legislative bill that would remove obstacles to the Seton management takeover of city-owned Brackenridge Hospital. Maxey pointed out that such a position goes against repeated promises by the mayor, councilmembers, and city management, that indigent care would continue at Brackenridge. A visibly angry City Manager Jesus Garza didn't deny any of Maxey's statements, but launched into an impassioned speech about how this was a matter that should be decided by the city, not the state Legislature. (Funny he hasn't made similar statements about anti-Austin legislation.) These concerns were scheduled to be discussed further at a council work session, April 26; for more details on Maxey's remarks, see "Council Watch."

For updates on the above and other issues, tune in to Daryl Slusher's daily reports on KOOP radio, 91.7 FM, weekdays at 6:30pm.

Austin Bashing Unconstitutional?

On Wednesday, April 26, Austin American-Statesman reporter Ralph K.M. Haurwitz disclosed the contents of an internal memo obtained from the Texas Natural Resources Commission (TNRCC) which states that a bill sponsored by Sen. Jeff Wentworth and Rep. Ron Lewis would fail to protect Barton Creek, preempt current enforcement measures, and work against state and federal regulations. The bill would allow FM Properties and other developers with over 1,000 acres in Austin's extraterritorial jurisdiction to exempt themselves from the city's ordinances and regulations and submit their own water quality plans to the TNRCC. According to the Statesman report, the internal memo was sent by Mark Jordan, director of water policy and regulations, to Laura Koesters, deputy executive director of water resources management. As the state's environmental agency, the TNRCC would review and approve the water quality plans submitted by the developers within 120 days, whether or not the agency has sufficient information.

According to the Statesman, the memo also states that the bill may violate a provision in the Texas Constitution prohibiting special bills which attempt to regulate a particular municipality. "Prohibition against local laws are intended to combat corruption, personal privileges and meddling in local affairs - or conversely, to prevent a group from dashing to the Capitol to get something their local government would not give them," reads the memo. According to the Statesman report, TNRCC spokesperson Patrick Crimmins said, that "It is not an official agency position because we don't take official positions on proposed legislation." - Louisa C. Brinsmade

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