Naked City

Off the Desk:

Coming soon to a neighborhood near you, the city planning department is starting to make house calls. At a May 21 work session, city council approved a new pilot program with an aim to take the business of planning out of city hall and into the neighborhoods. "Zoning cases now come before the planning committee and council pretty much in isolation, not viewed in terms of neighborhood or even sector-wide plans," says Planning Director Roger Duncan. Only two neighborhood regions -- of 5,000 residents apiece, will be selected from a pool of applicants for the initial neighborhood planning pilot, but city officials say they eventually intend to use neighborhood-based planning efforts throughout the city. Councilmembers select the two lucky neighborhoods in August...

When it rains, it pours -- resignations, that is. First the police chief, and now fire chief Robin Paulsgrove is set to leave on July 11 for the Arlington Fire Dept. Money is the reason. Paulsgrove says that Arlington was able to offer him a more competitive salary. An interim chief has yet to be selected, and the search for a permanent replacement will likely drag on into the fall. -- K.V.

Tune in Thursday for more of the Eric Mitchell Swan Song at city council, whose agenda this week is chock full of Mitchell initiatives. At the top of the list -- the outgoing councilmember will give a final push toward getting his Central City Entertainment Center underway. Council is expected to consider some $1.78 million in city contract awards on the Mitchell project. An executive session is scheduled for this item as well, to discuss buying real property adjacent to the entertainment center site...

In a non-Mitchell-related item, Thursday's council meeting will revisit the local homeless issue with a homelessness task force report proposing three potential sites for construction of a homeless campus that would carry a price tag between $2 million and $3.5 million. Two of the prospective spots are south of downtown; the other is east of downtown...

It's called TIPPS, but it's collecting much more than an obligatory gratuity to get off the ground. The Texas Institute of Public Problem Solving is a big name with a big mission: To train police officers across the state in the fine art of problem-solving and mediation. The University of Texas is charged with creating TIPPS, and Austin will be its home base. Congressman Lloyd Doggett said this week a $1 million federal grant will go toward TIPPS' creation. Area cop shops -- the Austin, San Marcos, and Georgetown police departments -- and the Dispute Resolution Center in Austin will help put the program into place. The brainchild of the program, incidentally, is Councilmember-elect Bill Spelman, a UT associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs...

A slick new quarterly magazine, reminiscent of the old Third Coast, has hit newstands in the name of @ Austin, with local freelance journalist (and former Austin Chronicle writer) Alice Wightman at the helm, with able assistance from art director David Timmons, so says this week's In Fact newsletter. On the cover is a Wightman feature on singer-songwriter-writer Kinky Friedman. Other contributors include local fiction celebs Sarah Bird, who provides a photo story of a 50,000-mile road trip, and Tom Doyal, who gives us "Mambo Panties" in this introductory 64-page issue...

The venerable Texas Observer will hold a fundraiser on Sunday, June 8, at the Trois Estates. Entertainment begins at 4pm with a kids' concert, followed by the evening's events from 6-9pm. John Gorka and Peter Yarrow will do the singing, in separate and joint sets. For directions and ticket info, call 477-0746...

A victorious local election season gives the Save Our Springs Alliance and fans reason to kick up their heels at an upcoming benefit celebrating the seventh anniversary of the "Barton Springs Uprising," on Friday, June 6, at La Zona Rosa. The lineup includes Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Shawn Colvin, and Joe Ely. The party repairs to Barton Springs Pool the next day for a cool, sobering splash...

Praise God and bless this House... In a recent American Family Association newsletter, executive director Wyatt Roberts takes Austin Rep. Sherri Greenberg to task for challenging the Christian prayers delivered daily in the Texas House of Representatives. Greenberg is Jewish and took issue with pastors praying in the name of Jesus Christ. "This," Roberts writes, "is despite the fact that Jewish rabbis have been allowed many times to say the opening prayer... While Rep. Greenburg (sic) should certainly have her religious views respected, it is outrageous to suggest that Christian ministers should not pray in the name of Christ, as is mandated in scripture." Well, there you go... -- A.S.

Budget Battles Ablaze

Now here's something not so unusual: Councilmember Eric Mitchell and Councilmember Daryl Slusher were in disagreement during the May 22 council meeting. Slusher's resolution to hold four pubic hearings on the city budget, organized loosely around the themes "social fabric and public safety," and "urban fabric, transportation, and environment," was met with disgusted protest from Mitchell, who wants public safety prioritized in city budget planning.

"I'm trying to be real simple in my thinking. Are we taking into account any type of priorities of service?" Mitchell asked.

Slusher said that he envisioned the process as loosely organized in hopes of spurring discussion about the budget challenges facing the city. "There's some overlap [in categories], and that's intentional," explained Slusher.

Surprisingly, outgoing Councilmember Ronney Reynolds came to Slusher's aid, even lauding his former mayoral opponent, Mayor-elect Kirk Watson, in the process. "Over the last four to five months, I've gotten to know the opinions of the new mayor-elect, and he'll make every effort to make public safety the first item to be voted on," Reynolds offered, attempting to smooth Mitchell's ruffled feathers.

The council won't have Mitchell to kick around any more in any case, though, so the public hearings should go off without a hitch. -- K.V.

See Bill Lobby

The local daily didn't call his conduct "unseemly" again, as they have many times before. Instead, the editorial writers called the activities of William "Dollar Bill" Cunningham "troubling" and "disturbing." The Statesman could still use a thesaurus to come up with better adjectives for Cunningham ("corrupt" comes to mind), but they did attack the University of Texas chancellor again. They didn't go after Cunningham for taking a $650,000 payoff from Freeport-McMoRan. Nor did they dress him down for his fundraising activities on behalf of state politicos.

This time it was for his lobbying efforts at the Capitol. Dollar Bill is not supposed to lobby. In fact, he is prohibited from lobbying by state law. But Cunningham has been working the legislature all session long, particularly on issues that pertain to UT's athletic department.

Of course, Cunningham has said he wasn't lobbying at all, he was merely providing information to legislators about bills that would affect UT. But Rep. Ron Wilson (D-Houston), who is the House sponsor of a bill that will raise academic standards for student athletes, has no doubt that the UT chancellor and his cohorts were asking for votes.

"Ray Charles could have seen they were lobbying," said Wilson. -- R.B.

Back to Basics

The recent boost in test scores notwithstanding, the Austin Independent School District is looking like almost half a billion bucks these days. School officials last week released a proposed budget for the 1997-98 school year of $457.5 million, a little more than a 10% increase over last year's budget of $411.5 million. A few highlights of the $45.9 million increase include:

Pay hikes for all AISD employees totaling $11.3 million, plus an improved dental plan; $1 million for staff and materials at all school libraries; $7.8 million for technology, network, and telecommunications support; $1.5 million for year-round maintenance and housekeeping services, plus routine building maintenance; and $870,850 to continue training and implementation of new mathematics curriculum.

One proposed (and rather controversial) expenditure -- a point of debate between AISD trustees and AISD administration in March -- seems to be off the table for the moment. Rather than adopting "whole hog" the online curriculum services of the Education Management Group (EMG), to the tune of $3 million per year for the next three years, AISD staff will instead issue a request for proposals for those services. Deputy superintendent Kay Psencik said AISD might need multiple vendors to deploy online curricula, not just one. Board members Geoff Rips and Liz Hartman have sharply questioned the wisdom behind AISD's getting involved with EMG.

Another controversial move involves reducing supplemental funds to low-income campuses by $1 million. AISD administration officials say that those funds will be redistributed to other curriculum initiatives, such as the aforementioned math curriculum, and to boosting the basic per-student allocation of funds for all campuses. Trustees vary widely in their opinions on this; Ted Whatley said he would like to give the affected schools a year's notice of this funding change; Tom Agnor wants to see it made effective with this year's budget.

Breaking with tradition, the board will first hold a public hearing on the budget June 11, and then another work session June 16, before adopting the budget at its regular meeting June 23. Though some would consider AISD's timing of the budget adoption to be rather off-kilter -- the 1996-97 school year ended May 22, after all -- school officials blame the vicissitudes of the Texas Legislature and that body's deliberations of property tax reform for the untimely delay in letting everyone get a peek at the plan. For more on the budget, visit the district's website: http://www.austin.isd.tenet.edu. -- R.A.

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