Naked City

AISD Bond Vote Set

AISD trustees have set the date for a $369.4 million bond election: Saturday, April 13. Early voting will be March 25-April 9. The package is divided into three sections for your consideration: $120.5 million in renovations throughout the district, $177 million to build new schools and classroom additions, and $71.9 million for safety and security upgrades and infrastructure for technology. District officials claim that the package is driven by instructional needs, and will not accommodate any new growth in AISD; but some detractors say otherwise. For more information on that issue and others surrounding the bond package, stay tuned for upcoming coverage. Three AISD trustee races will follow close on the heels of the bond election, coinciding with city council races on Saturday, May 4. Early voting will be April 15-30. Ted Whatley, Liz Hartman, and Diana Casteñeda have all indicated that they will run for re-election. -- R.A.

Off The Desk:

Despite efforts to negotiate their release, the Free Papua Movement (OPM), an indigenous rebel group, continues to hold 13 hostages in a remote section of Irian Jaya, some 100 miles east of Freeport-McMoRan's giant gold and copper mine. The OPM kidnapped 26 people in a remote village of Irian Jaya's Baliem Valley on January 8. Half of the hostages were later released, but the OPM continues to hold four British students, two Dutch students and seven Indonesians. As the hostage situation drags on, Dutch and British officials, including a hostage negotiating team from Scotland Yard, have gotten involved in the negotiations, but no breakthroughs have occurred... More bad news for the boll weevil eradication program, the one that farmers say does more harm than good. The Mississippi Boll Weevil Management Corp. has received a petition with 325 signatures that will force an election later this month on the eradication program in that state. Mississippi cotton farmers within the boll weevil eradication zone had losses similar to those that occurred here in Texas. Last month, farmers in the Rio Grande Valley voted by a margin of almost 3 to 1 to end the eradication effort in that region. Meanwhile, farmers in the San Angelo area are trying to collect the 560 signatures needed to force an election in that region -- R.B.

Son of Barton Creek Properties?

A proposal for a 333-acre Planned Unit Development [PUD] on endangered species habitat is being sped through the city's development process to avoid adherence to strict development regulations that become effective in May, complain local environmentalists. But a lawyer for the development and an employee within the city's environmental department counter that the project is already exempt from the new regulations.

PWB Joint Venture/Perot Group, partly owned by H. Ross Perot, has proposed a 2.2 million square-foot development at the Northeast juncture of FM 2222 and RM 620. The PUD -- originally approved in the 1980s under the Lake Austin Watershed Ordinance, but later put on hold as political controversy swelled over environmental issues in the early 1990s -- is coming back to haunt environmentalists at a time when "property-rights" hold sway.

The proposed development is near Bull Creek, and includes a hotel, numerous office buildings, and two research and development campuses on land that is home to nine endangered species. According to a November 13 environmental analysis by The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [FWS], those species include the Golden Cheeked Warbler and the Black-Capped Vireo.

"Every piece of the 333 acres is occupied by warbler habitat," says Joe Johnston, FWS Senior Biologist. To obtain a 10(A) permit from FWS to develop the land, PWB Joint Venture is setting aside 182 acres as a preserve. But environmentalists say the proposed impervious cover, which amounts to 31% of the project, including the preserves, would still make deadly inroads into the warbler habitat.

Biologist Chuck Sexton, a then-city environmental specialist, said in a Daily Texan article in 1990 that the development would destroy 80-100% of the warbler nesting sites. Karen Hadden, a member of Citizens Organized to Defend Austin (CODA), notes that, aside from the PUD's decreased plans for square footage, "Not a whole lot [about the revised development] has changed."

Hadden and other environmentalists complain that the developer is trying to rush the project through for council approval, before their 10-year grace period from the Comprehensive Watershed Ordinance (CWO) ends on May 18. In other words, the company submitted their site plan in May, 1986, before the CWO was approved. They had ten years to begin construction under the Lake Austin Watershed Ordinance, which was then in effect. Environmentalists are saying that if the company misses the May 18 deadline, they could be subject to the CWO. "Not much happened for a long time, and now all of a sudden they're trying to get it passed by council," Hadden says.

But attorney Robert Kleeman, of Minter, Joseph, Thornhill, which is representing the company, denies trying to beat the CWO deadline. He says the PUD Land Use Plan must be responsible only to the Lake Austin Watershed Ordinance, which is less stringent than the CWO. Joe Calabrese, of the Drainage Utility Department, agrees. He says the current plan will remain effective, and so will the exemption, even after May 18. Thus, the developer shouldn't care about gaining council approval before the grace period ends.

The council approved minor revisions to the PUD Land Use Plan on first reading on December 14. A date for a second reading has not been set. -- A.M.

Hey... Tack-SEE!

A presentation at the city council's Wednesday work session last week evolved into an impromptu public hearing on a proposed change in the way the city regulates taxi cabs, limos, buses, and other vehicles for hire.

Assistant City Manager Joe Lessard summed up the findings of a task force, whose recommendation is to change the city code and create a new ordinance that takes Austin from a franchise system, in which the city regulates access to the market, to a free market permitting system, in which the city simply issues permits and funds safety inspections by a private company, while letting the marketplace and free enterprise decide who stays in business. The ordinance would further open the city's doors to operators of shuttle buses.

Lessard told the Chronicle that he supports the task force's findings and the free-market option, which, he adds, is the approach taken by most comparable cities. "It's a lot simpler. It's a lot more straightforward."

The task force itself was created due to a rising number of complaints following the city's decision to cut funding for the inspection program in 1994. At the meeting, Councilmember Gus Garcia addressed safety concerns with a point-blank question to Lessard: "Do we have unsafe, uninsured providers on the streets of Austin?"

"We do not inspect each vehicle to ensure that they are safe," Lessard replied.

Addressing the issue of privatizing the inspection process, Hannah Riddering, a driver with American Yellow Checker, alleged that a popular private company, Lemon Busters, which now does inspections in San Antonio, has an incentive not to pass vehicles because they charge for each inspection.

Watching quietly in the back of the room, in crisp, white Lemon Buster's T-shirts, sat John Adams and Barry Sprague, co-owners of the six-year-old Austin-based company, which is statewide and growing. When approached by a reporter, they responded to the charge that they have an incentive not to pass vehicles. "It's totally erroneous," Adams said, noting that the second inspection is free. But he added that in order to encourage compliance, subsequent inspections do cost.

Adams and Sprague added they are the best at what they do and are the pioneers of their industry. But even if the concept is approved, Lemon Busters would have to be the low bid to win the city contract to perform the inspections. "It will be a competitive process. We're interested in seeing what they do," Lessard said. According to Lessard, before that bridge is crossed, others, including the rest of the council, franchise holders, and riders, will get a chance to weigh in on the issue at future public hearings. -- J.R.

Sharp Drops Smart Bomb

Few statewide elected officials get more positive ink than Texas Comptroller John Sharp. There's a reason: Sharp's job allows him to make lots of political hay while posing as a number-crunching dweeb.

Last week, the state's number-one nerd unveiled a plan that could save the state hundreds of millions of dollars. Sharp wants to use high-powered computer systems to fight Medicaid fraud, which, in Texas, may be costing taxpayers $1 billion per year, according to General Accounting Office estimates.

Sharp plans to ferret out fraud using neural networks -- computer systems which mimic the workings of the human brain. Instead of neurons, however, neural networks rely on a series of processing units which are trained through repetition to recognize patterns in streams of data. Gradually, the system learns to categorize patterns and call them to the attention of system operators.

Neural networks, which were first developed in 1949, did not gain widespread attention until the Gulf War, when they were used to help guide rockets and ordinance toward tanks and other targets on the battlefield. They've never been used to pinpoint fraud in the vast Medicaid system. But they have already proven their value in the private sector. "It's a great technology to help us fight credit and debit card fraud," says Gail Murayama, a spokesperson for Visa International, which began using a neural network on its computer system in 1993. "Our counterfeit fraud losses are down 18%," said Murayama. "Since January of 1995, Visa's member financial institutions have saved $100 million by using the neural networks."

Sharp says he expects the system to find the first cases of Medicaid fraud by April. The entire system will be operational September 1 this year. -- R.B.

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