Reynolds and Mitchell Dream Big
illustration by Ben Anglin
Yet everything was not sunshine and roses. It was late, way past bedtime, the bureaucratic babble aspiring to its 10th hour, when Eric Mitchell and his following threw a match into a combustible pot of housing money for the poor.
The story began two months ago, shortly after the city's Austin Housing Finance Corporation (AHFC) proposed this year's budget for how it would spend the city's annual Community Development Block Grant (CDBG). CDBG grants are federal housing dollars, and to receive them, the city must go through a five-month public input process to determine how much money should go to targeted neighborhood organizations, how much to low-income rental owners, etc. But Mitchell, who unearthed $8.3 million in uncommitted housing money last year, raised a number of puzzling questions about the CDBG spending plan. After receiving what he considered unsatisfactory answers, the council delayed approval of the AHFC budget at that point. So for the past two months, the corporation has existed off an emergency allocation of $1.2 million, and applications to use the money have been put on hold. To get the train back on track, the AHFC budget returned for approval last Thursday. But again, Mitchell raised questions, throwing out a smoke-screen of figures to make it look like the corporation couldn't add two and two. A baffled and fatigued council unanimously delayed the corporation's budget for another two weeks. But Mitchell's colleagues are becoming increasingly skeptical that his scrutiny is sincere, since he has his own design for the CDBG money.
He wants $1.25 million of it for his Vision Village proposal, that he says will provide housing for unwed mothers, the elderly, and juvenile delinquents. Vision Village is promising, though as Mitchell says, "it is just that, a vision." But judging from its claptrap financial underpinnings, it might as well be called "Hallucination Village." The council obligated itself to $1.25 million of the plan in October, on the condition that Austin Community College (ACC) contribute a matching amount. The total would be used to purchase land and buildings at the old Travis State School on Webberville Road. But the buildings would require extensive renovation, and of course, someone would have to operate it with money from somewhere. No excess funding for either the renovation or operation was ever identified. Moreover, ACC backed out. Now, Mitchell wants the city's housing department to assume all the risk by putting up the entire $2.5 million, with renovation and operating funds still unidentified.
In an attempt to quench Mitchell's thirst for funds, housing staffers submitted a list of amendments to the proposed CDBG spending plan. They would take nearly a half million dollars from the housing department's funding that goes to targeted neighborhood organizations for neighborhood renovations. Another half million would come from a program that provides money to property owners who provide cheap rental rates. The rest would come from cutting back on single family loan funds.
As part of the public hearing at Thursday's councilmeeting, the proposed amendments went to a citizens' group called the Community Development Commission, which quickly gave it a thumbs down. The CDBG spending plan is fine as is, they say, and tampering with it would leave neighborhood groups and providers of housing for the poor out in the cold.
Mitchell counters that the amended plan would do no such thing. Where would the money come from, then? He would not say specifically, though he is having another vision, of a top-secret stash that the housing staff are "hiding" from the public. He implies that if staff supported Vision Village, they would use the money from their secret stash. From the dais he claimed that he has "the keys to the vault" and if his opponents will just trust him, he'll find millions more: "I'll show you how to get two, three times what you wanted." He says the staff have "misled" the public and the CDC into believing that funding for their neighborhoods will be cut so that staff can carry out their own "selfish motivations." He did not name names, and did not say what the motivations are.
Caught in the middle are people like Cindy Brettschneider, who is renovating a housing complex in East Austin proper. She says she was promised $40,000 to help provide low-rent housing to the poor, if she would provide a matching grant first. She put up her share of the investment, but she says that three weeks ago, housing officer Gary Adrian informed her that "I couldn't go any further because of Vision Village. I was told `Your funding is dead'." (At press time, a phone call to Adrian had not been returned.)
When she brought her case to the council podium last week, city's housing director Bill Cook responded, "I have no reason to believe that anyone would be telling you that." Surrogate chairman Reynolds suggested that she meet privately with Cook immediately following her speech. She replied that she had to go home to her children. Reynolds said her unwillingness to meet made her story less believable, and Brettschneider, 56, tore out of the chambers, sobbing.
Mitchell's aide, Donnetta McCall, caught up to her in the breezeway outside. Brettschneider collapsed in her arms, and McCall, who had never met her before, thanked her for outing the alleged lies. "Those housing staff are so damn dirty! We got 12 calls just like yours."
But despite McCall's histrionics, the truth is that staff should not be blamed for picking the money from various programs. It's got to come from somewhere, and until Mitchell can actually prove that this lucrative vault is no fairy tale, the only one misleading the public is him.
Recycling RacismThe fun commenced earlier in the day, when East Austinites from the lower Eastside, Hispanics mainly, were protesting what they considered the latest example of environmental racism. Namely, the Balcones Recycling Plant, scheduled to open in less than 30 days at the corner of E. Sixth & Pedernales. The site was previously a lumber yard, but staff determined that a recycling plant would not significantly change the use of the site. Thus, the plant needed only administrative approval, so Eastside groups found out about it after it was too late to protest.
Like other factories and plants in Central East Austin, this one will be next door to houses, thanks to old zoning practices designed to force minorities further East. Remember, it was earlier this year that the BFI recycling plant, also in East Austin, erupted in flames. There is speculation that both BFI and Balcones are bidding for the city's lucrative recyling contract, and East Austin organizations like EACH (East Austin Concerned Hispanics) hope the council will make location a factor in the award, to oust at least one of the companies from their neighborhoods.
The situation is likely to cause further anger against the environmental
movement from minorities who say that West Austin's natural resources are
always protected to the detriment of East Austin. They complain that the
plant would never be built on the city's West Side. Some environmentalists
joined about 15 Hispanic East Austin residents as the sign-carrying contingent
marched in silent protest through council chambers. Resentments against the
environmental movement's agenda are stoked by the fact that the wife of Ted
Whatley, AISD board member and a perceived environmentalist, has an ownership
interest in the plant. Since East Austin has traditionally been the dumping
ground for such hazardous facilities as the tank farms and the Holly Power
plant, their concern is easy to understand. But the real culprit is the city's
land development code, which the Planning Commission will consider amending so
that, in the future, any change in ownership of an industrial site in East
Austin will require public hearings.
Reformers Close in
on Ballot Spot Later in the night, as the big hand inched toward 11, the council took the first step in putting the citizens' petition called "A Little Less Corruption" (ALLC) on the ballot. Because only four councilmembers were present when the item came up for a vote, it passed only on first reading. The council opted for a May election instead of January, so they can tack on another ballot measure to transfer some of the Electric Utility Department's operating decisions to an independent board.
The petition had been struck down by City Clerk Elden Aldridge for a lack of valid signatures, but the petitioners, Priorities First!, proved that a large percentage of the invalidated signatures were in fact real. "The spirit of the petition is that 5% of registered voters in the city do want this election," said Daryl Slusher, who sponsored the item to put the item on the ballot.
The clerk's office had invalidated thousands of signatures due to verification difficulties that arose from the fact that petitioners did not collect voter registration numbers. ALLC backers cried foul, since courts have recently ruled that collecting voter registration numbers unconstitutionally impedes the signature-gathering process. This petition drive marks the first time in Austin that signatures have been gathered without registration numbers, and, according to Aldridge, this is the first time the clerk's office has been challenged. Aldridge defends his office's original decision to invalidate the signatures, noting that the courts have handed down piece-meal decisions, but have not issued a ruling that would govern all petitions across the board.
Reynolds, who said he was troubled by the reform measure because it would give incumbents an advantage, was the only councilmember to raise any questions about the measure, which would limit contributions to candidates to $100 and to PACs to $25. Reynolds noted that, under the reforms, those with personal wealth would have an advantage since candidates could spend all they want of their own money. Even though the limits won't affect Reynolds' own upcoming mayoral campaign unless the measure passes, and Reynolds is involved in a run-off, there was concern that Reynolds wouldn't provide the fourth vote to put the item on the ballot. Four years earlier, after all, Reynolds had told citizens to "...take a hike" when they requested that he put the Save Our Springs initiative on the ballot. But the opportunity to live out his mayoral dreams had apparently turned Reynolds into a new man. He was the kind, humorous, lovable guy we always knew he could be. And when the clerk asked his vote, a coy Reynolds passed. The clerk went on to the others. Councilmember Goodman? Yes. Councilmember Slusher? Yes. Councilmember Griffith? Yes. Councilmember Reynolds? He slammed his binder shut, then looked up with his Cheshire grin, "Yes!"