Council Watch

High Chairs, Water Systems, and Jails

by Alex De Marban

What do Judge Lance Ito and Eric Mitchell have in common? Their swivel chairs.

Reacting to the council's decision three weeks ago to reseat Mitchell in the "traditional black chair" at the left end of the dais, the Black Citizens' Task Force gave Mitchell a $1,300, "Relax the Back" seat before last Thursday's council meeting got underway.

Mitchell's voice cracked during his acceptance speech to the large, primarily African-American crowd at council chambers. He promised to continue to fight for the whole city, and black males especially, no matter where he sits.

The tall, black, leather chair seemed to work magic; It relaxed not just Mitchell's back, but the entire meeting as well. Gus Garcia sat in it and joked that it characteristically leaned to the left. Mitchell avoided his usual flamboy-ant outbursts. And the rest of the councilmembers were relatively cordial throughout the meeting.

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Of course, the politeness could also be attributed to the fact that any contentious topics were put off until this week's meeting, which will start with an item to provide water service to Freeport's proposed 700-acre Lantana development, located southwest of town, but within the Austin city limits. The $4 million system would also serve developments to the south of Lantana, providing water to an estimated 5,000 people over the ecologically sensitive Edwards Aquifer Recharge zone. After build-out, the water utility expects to take in $2.3 million per year in revenues from the system.

At last Thursday's meeting, water and wastewater staff had failed to answer a litany of questions that Councilmember Brigid Shea submitted two days earlier. Her motion to postpone cleared, with Mitchell abstaining.

The delay gave Austin's environmental community one more coveted week to study the proposal, but council is expected to approve the agreement today.

Barton Creek lovers fear the system may one day serve not only Lantana, but the southern, commercial portion of Freeport McMoRan's proposed 4,590-acre planned unit development (PUD) as well, located just north of Lantana, above Barton Creek and atop the Edwards Aquifer.

Heightening environmental concerns about the proposal is a provision to build two reservoirs on PUD land, instead of in Lantana. Building resevoirs in the PUD will simplify Freeport efforts to one day get the PUD hooked into the city's water system, says Mary Arnold, a city environmental commissioner and a former member of the water and wastewater commission.

Mitt Tidwell, a water and wastewater engineer, says the city selected the site for the reservoirs because Freeport has agreed to donate the land - about five acres total - and because it's the highest land around the proposed service area, allowing for stronger water pressure throughout Lantana. "There's not a high point in Lantana that would serve the system. The next best location is west of Lantana, and we would have to acquire that."

Another potential flashpoint, says Arnold, is the cost, which has dramatically increased since last February, when the same water system was included in the Freeport agreement that would have allowed full development of the entire PUD. The agreement at that time called for Freeport to pay for the entire project, an estimated cost of $2.1 million. In the current water service arrangement, the city is to reimburse Freeport after the project's completion. Now that the city will pay, the cost has jumped to $4 million.

"The more we looked at this, we didn't feel like [$2.1 million] was enough money," explains Tidwell. "In the February agreement an engineer looked at this real quick, and said [$2.1 million] is what it'll be." Tidwell added that it's been so long since the city built a pump station, they underestimated the price tag, currently set at $2.5 million.

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Conservationists could see some success with another item delayed until today: Mitchell's proposal to eliminate $7.7 million a year in energy and water rebates to commercial and multi-family properties. The savings would in turn be funneled to police, fire, and emergency services, according to Mitchell's ordinance.

The proposal so far has little council backing; only Ronney Reynolds, whom Mitchell calls "his other half," has openly supported the idea. The Resource Management Commission, a council-appointed board, voted 7-0 on July 11 to con-tinue the conservation programs.

The program, which refunds corporations for installing energy-saving equipment, is responsible for saving more than 250 megawatts at any given instant, or enough power to supply 43,000 homes. By comparison, the Holly plant produces 110 megawatts of power at most times of the day, and slightly more than 200 megawatts in the afternoon. In the past 13 years, the conservation program has also prevented the emission of 1,300 tons of air pollutants, and 300,000 tons of carbon dioxide, according to the Resource Management Commission.

Councilmember Jackie Goodman argues that the programs have helped prevent the construction of a new power plant. But Reynolds feels that with increased competition just around the corner, the city will never have to build a new power plant, since it can contract out with utility providers.

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The city also may have to contract out with jail space providers, or even build a new pen, if the council passes the mayor's citywide encampment ordinance as expected. The ordinance would allow police to arrest and book homeless individuals caught sleeping in public places, and charge with them a class C misdemeanor, which carries a maximum $500 fine.

If so, police expect to be inundated with work. While there are an estimated 5,500 homeless in Austin, there are no more than 500 shelter beds for them. Ideas to increase shelter are scarce; the city's leader has none, except to say that the private sector will find a solution. "We [government] don't have the resources," Mayor Todd said in an interview last Thursday. "You can't expect us to meet all those human needs."

The mayor also contends that the homeless can go stay at the Salvation Army, claiming that there's always extra room there. But in 1994, the Salvation Army operated at 109-145% of its 224-bed capacity, and had to deny shelter to 2,042 homeless persons, according to a report issued by the Neighborhood Housing and Conservation Department.

Even the central booking facility is dangerously overcrowded because of the large number of Class C offenders in the city. To handle the expected influx if the ordinance passes, the department would need additional jail space, says APD Chief Elizabeth Watson. The council has discussed just that in recent work sessions, and the police department, according to financial administrator Don Bowne, is already contemplating a site near Bergstrom for the incarceration of class C offenders. Anticipated cost? $2.6 million.

Another option would be to contract out with Travis County, once it opens the new, improved central booking facility downtown. Of course, it won't open for another two years and will require the city to lease the extra jail space for several million dollars - if the county grants the city that option. Right now, for about $3 million a year, the city leases space in the old booking facility from the county. The proposed 1995-96 city budget includes no funding for either a space-sharing option or a new jail facility.

Former homeless person, Councilmember Max Nofziger, is expected to support the no camping ordinance, and that means it could win a majority vote when it comes up at the July 27 meeting. Take note: Last year, a federal court ruled that Dallas' encampment ordinance is unconstitutional. One factor in the decision: There are fewer beds than there are homeless. Dallas is appealing the lawsuit.

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This week in council: Council will hold a public hearing on the encampment ordinance at 5pm. Councilmembers will also vote on whether to approve an agreement providing water to Freeport's proposed Lantana development, and on a motion to discard the energy conservation rebate program. n

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