Council Watch

Bum Deal for the Mayor

The homeless - a bona fide political force? It seemed so last Thursday, as homeless people and their advocates overloaded the council meeting's timetable with 108 speakers, winning a three-week reprieve from a doomsday vote on the mayor's anti-encampment ordinance. Chalk it up as the Homeless 1, the Mayor 0.

The winning team pulled out all the stops: Protestors lined the street outside council chambers hours before a public hearing on the ordinance, while inside, scores of homeless supporters held aloft picket signs for the meeting's duration. When a previous topic began to take up the time allotted for the scheduled public hearing, a battery of homeless sympathizers stood up from their chairs in a silent protest that speeded the discussion along.

Credit goes to House the Home-less president Richard Troxell, who darted through the crowd during the three-and-a-half hour public hearing, instructing, advising, explaining, and making sure no homeless people got out of line. Bruce Todd evicted only one mischief-maker.

Moreover, Troxell also waged an effective educational campaign during the course of the last two weeks, circulating statistical information on homelessness and generic, fill-in-the-blank speeches to help interested homeless people get ready to present their views at the hearing. He also appeared on at least five television and radio shows and wrote a guest editorial for the local daily.

It's no wonder Todd's ordinance is causing such a stir. To begin with, the mayor's proposal - which could result in a $500 fine and a 10-day imprisonment for homeless people either sleeping or setting up bedding in all public places (Class C misdemeanor) - contains no fiscal note for the arrests, incarceration, and processing of the estimated 5,500 homeless individuals for whom Austin's homeless shelters don't have room.

As some speakers observed, the 10-day imprisonment means the ordinance could create a 10-day revolving door from the streets to the jail. Under this scenario, a homeless person could theoretically get arrested three times per month; if each homeless person meets this quota of arrests, the city's court docket and the central booking facility, both already brimming over with Class C scofflaws, could increase by 15,000 cases per month. Jail visits alone cost $45 per inmate per day, according to Travis County press secretary Andy Saenz.

Todd, who informed the crowd that he had delayed his one-year wedding anniversary dinner until 9pm to hear some of the arguments, calls the figures "misleading," since he expects partial compliance with the ordinance when homeless people "are forced to use the facilities that are presently available and funded." Yet, as reported last week, Austin's homeless shelters can provide beds for only 500 people; officials estimate the city is home to 5,500 people without shelter.

Todd adds that the jailing and processing costs will be countered by undefined revenue increases from the increased public use of sidewalks, and thus, commercial venues, after the homeless are removed, although that income is hard to quantify. "Whether we pass the ordinance or not there will be increased costs," he said. "The costs of the loss of public parks (and sidewalks), the loss of attractiveness to the city, and concerns for public safety, I think, are going to be staggering [if we don't pass the ordinance]."

Another problem: The legality of the proposed ordinance is chancy at best. A similar Dallas ordinance was found unconstitutional by a federal court last year. The outcome is on appeal in the 5th Circuit, with a decision at least six months away.

Still, despite the potential penal and legal costs involved, and the lack of means for paying these costs, the ordinance is expected to pass. Max Nofziger has said he's a yea vote. Eric Mitchell and his "other half," Ronney Reynolds, favor the ordinance, though they both say that the council should look for alternative housing for the people who don't choose homelessness.

"The encampment ordinance is not a complete solution, but it probably is a part of the solution," Reynolds says. The other part? "I don't know," he admits.

But Mitchell thinks he has an answer: Relocate 50 duplexes that have yet to be moved from the Bergstrom Air Force Base onto one of the larger parcels of land that the city owns but is not currently using; housing, job training, and social services could then be provided by the city and other agencies in a centralized location. Mitchell suggested the idea more than two weeks ago at a housing subcommittee meeting, yet he admitted from the dais Thursday that it's still just an idea.

The closest thing to a complete solution is a 266-bed detoxification and rehabilitation center, for which the proposed 1995-96 budget recognizes a need but leaves unfunded. Included in the budget's unmet needs along with the center, which a $22,000 study by John T. O'Neill estimates will cost $5-6 million, is job training and job placement, as well as health and social services. A petition by House the Homeless to get funding for the center on the November 7 ballot is underway. Troxell says "several thousand" signatures have been collected; at least 30,000 are needed by September 15.

Advocates for the homeless also have three more weeks to lobby councilmembers against the ordinance, an unfortunate occur-ence for Todd, who, before he left for his anniversary dinner, had expected the vote to be on July 27. The delay occurs because only 50 speakers (including six business-men in favor of the ordinance) had spoken before 10pm, regular closing time for a council meeting. Mayor Pro-tem Gus Garcia asked the other 64 speakers to return this week at 5pm, and stated that a council vote will not be held until two weeks after everyone has spoken, as was the schedule until the original July 13 public hearing was delayed for one week. Responding to apprehension that Todd would override his promise and still hold the vote this week, Garcia asserted from the dais that, "The mayor cannot unilaterally make that decision."

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Todd, Mitchell, and Reynolds got trounced earlier in the day when Councilmembers Goodman, Garcia, Shea, and Nofziger voted to send a $4 million water service agreement with Freeport-McMoRan to the water and wastewater commission for a recommendation, delaying council approval for at least three weeks and irking city staffers.

The vote came after 18 speakers signed up to speak, all against the item. No representatives from Freeport spoke. However, city water and wastewater and legal staff, who could easily be overheard cursing and complaining about Shea's pesky questions, publicly presented the plan as financially promising.

Others disagreed, including former wastewater commissioner Mary Arnold, who pointed out that the agreement - which would let Freeport pay for the extension of the city's water lines to a 700-acre tract of land called Lantana, then reimburse Freeport from city coffers - violates the land code. Specifically, says Arnold, the proposed agreement calls for the city to reimburse Freeport for every living-unit equivalent (LUE, a hookup to an individual residence) at a rate over 10 times higher than the code permits.

Water and wastewater engineer Mitt Tidwell agrees, but adds that this agreement is unique. "The code is established for reimbursement under normal situations," he says. "Under this situation, the city committed to the developer in 1987 to provide some infrastructure, but the city has not built its share. We thought we should reimburse the total cost, not the cost that the city code says."

Such a variance would require council approval. The agreement now goes to the water and wastewater commission for its August 2 meeting, and is scheduled to return for council action on August 17.

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This week in council: The public hearing on Todd's encampment ordinance will continue, beginning at 5pm. Councilmembers are expected to approve the Neighborhood, Housing, and Conservation Office's anticipated $12 million budget for 1995-96, as well as NHCO's five-year-blueprint for community redevelopment. They are also expected to approve more than $35 million for various construction projects at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

(Listen in to KOOP, 91.7 FM, every Monday at 6:30pm, for a review of the city council's meetings by Alex DeMarban.)

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