Rollin' Out the Welcome Wagon
"Yep, I was the only one," beamed the alleged mayoral aspirant during a timeout at last Thursday's councilmeeting.
The poor showing, besides raising questions about the council's oft-cited commitment to regional cooperation, seems likely fodder for the Legislature's next round of "Austin-bashing" in 1997. During the last session, arrogance in the city's annexation process was commonly invoked as a reason why Austin's ability to acquire new territory deserves the torture racks.
Needless to say, Reynolds is "disappointed" with his colleagues and showed it at last Thursday's meeting, starting in on a sermon that drew several humorous alibis from councilmembers and a quick clampdown from Mayor Bruce Todd. Apparently, Gus Garcia's illness the previous week had so depleted his strength that he could attend only one shindig on the night in question - the Austin Interfaith rally. Brigid Shea also attended the rally, but justified her choice by maintaining that she's probably got the best attendance record for past annexation hearings. An under-the-weather Jackie Goodman may have caught the debilitating bug from Garcia, and Todd couldn't make it because his allergies had flared up, according to his executive assistant. Max Nofziger's office wouldn't reveal his alibi, and Eric Mitchell won't talk to this free weekly.
Maybe, too, the annexation hearing's distant location in the area to be annexed - the 337-acre Texas Oaks South neighborhood, south of Slaughter Lane and east of Manchaca Road - kept attendance low. In any case, Reynolds and city staffers endured the brunt of the residents' frustration alone for more than two hours.
The neighborhood rallied against the proposed annexation on the grounds that it will increase their service fees and property taxes by about $500 a year without much, if any, improvement in services. Another commonly voiced complaint centered on belated notification by the city of the annexation plans, which didn't come until the first week of September.
The timing of the notification met state requirements, but city planners who wanted to get the word out earlier say that the lack of a registered neighborhood association delayed that process. Planners even tried to get the neighborhood's attention by attempting to persuade the Austin American-Statesman to write a Neighborhood-section article on the proposed annexation, says Luther Polnau, the planning department's manager of comprehensive planning. It's worked before, but this time, he says, the paper wouldn't bite. After all, the new editor did say he's striving for independence...
Regardless, the proposed annexation is the city's first attempt to expand its borders this year, and is part of a 990-acre package including six areas in South and Southwest Austin. Also planned for annexation is the not-yet-built 109-acre Terrace PUD (Planned Unit Development), and 398 acres between Barton Creek Park and Loop 360, most of which the city already owns.
The dearth of people in the other areas has helped the city avoid resistance like that put up by Texas South Oaks residents, who initially threatened a lawsuit. Their area lacks the incorporated status of a municipal utility district, which means the residents have no legal recourse to stall annexation. At the very least, though, the 2,200 residents, who hurriedly formed an organization, and requested the courtesy of another hearing with a hope for full council attendance, got the council's attention. The council verbally granted their request last Thursday; the re-hearing will come before November 2, the date of the first scheduled vote on the proposed annexation.
Indifference to neighborhoods also played a role in the consideration of Eric Mitchell's proposal to turn city-owned greenspace in the mostly white Swede Hill neighborhood in central East Austin into at least four privately developed, "affordable" housing units.
At last week's council meeting, about a dozen neighborhood residents briefly voiced their opposition to the loss of the land they use as an unofficial park, some pleading that the council bestow official park status on the greenspace, others scorning Mitchell's abusive and exclusionary treatment in pushing the deal on behalf of developer and state legislative candidate Jo Baylor. Curiously, the meeting drew the support of only one of the 30-or-so black proponents who had backed Mitchell and Baylor just a week earlier, which allowed the issue to avoid (unlike the previous week) suggestions of a racial dilemma.
When all was said and done, only the tag-team duo of Reynolds and Mitchell (ER), opted for the proposal, dealing Mitchell his first major setback over an Eastside redevelopment initiative. Garcia, citing the need for "affordable" housing but doubtful as to "whether this tract of land ought to be the one where we hang our hats," was the only abstention.
Another Garcia abstention meant the coup de grace for a related Shea/Nofziger-proposal to award parkland status to the greenspace. Todd joined ER for a 3-3 rejection.
In criticizing the proposal, Mitchell, who has publicly stated that he will "ignore" anyone that opposes his objectives, offered a glaring hypocrisy. Chastising Shea and Nofziger for failing to communicate their park proposal with him, he asked, "If we can't set an example [for proper communication], how can we expect the community to do so?" Besides being "deeply disappointed with the message we're sending to the community," he charged that "this is a clear indication from Brigid Shea and Max Nofziger [on how the rules will be played]." Shea later countered that she had never received notification from Mitchell before he threw his Swede Hill initiative onto the council agenda at the last minute, instead of first going through the housing subcommittee, as is normally done.
The issue is far from dead. After the attempt at a parkland designation sunk, Shea recommended the input of the citizens' planning committee and planning commission, meaning the matter may soon return to the council agenda. To boot, Garcia, worried that the city will have to continue footing the maintenance tab for the greenspace, suggested that if the two commissions don't approve park status, that the city's legal staff auction it to the highest bidder. To the neighborhood's dismay, that means even less input into the development of the land than the Baylor idea, while doing nothing to ensure "affordable" housing.
Finally, the ER twosome separ-ated over Mitchell's attempt to transfer $4 million from the capital reserve account to the budgets of police, fire, EMS, and (after an amendment from Goodman) health and human services.
The money is anticipated sales tax revenue for this past September. It's considered a windfall since a change in accounting guidelines allows the city to add an extra month of sales tax revenue - September - to this fiscal year.
Reynolds and Garcia, both accountants, abstained from transferring the "funny money," saying it doesn't exist. The council's other accountant, Todd, cast a firm "no" vote, and firmly describes Mitchell's proposal as "blatant political posturing."
All three seemed to overlook the reasoning that won Goodman and Shea's backing: only the amount that is actually received for that month will be transferred, and only in six months, if it's not needed to help counteract lower-than-expected revenue for other months.
That left Nofziger, who broke his recently acquired habit of leaving the dais during a Mitchell proposal, and also abstained, perhaps surprisingly since during the recent budget deliberations he advocated an increase in property taxes to fund such basic services. (Mitchell's proposal would not have raised property taxes.) Speculation is already arising that the four opponents have their own "funny" plans for the money. n