Off the Desk:
In other noteworthy budget news announced Wednesday, the city's going broke, thanks in large measure to rampant growth and urban sprawl. Property owners may be asked to shell out more money to keep city coffers afloat. If the city council agrees, the average home, priced at $105,117, could see an increase of $28.37 in property taxes. That's a two-cent hike over the "effective rate," the rate at which overall revenue stays the same as last year. One penny goes to support the debt service on $35.3 million in bonds; the other is earmarked for "additional basic service projects" - parks maintenance, traffic-calming measures, library enhancements, and year 2000 computer changeovers. Residents may also face a transportation fee increase, including a $1-per-car parking fee at Zilker Park, which would fatten the Parks and Recreation budget by $84,000. A public hearing on the tax rate is scheduled for September... - K.V.
The Planning Commission has recommended the East Cesar Chavez, Dawson, and Chestnut neighborhoods for the city's initial round of neighborhood planning. The East Cesar Chavez team was far and away the PC's first choice, but only after on-the-dais alterations by outgoing commissioners Rita Thompson and Cathy Vasquez-Revilla to combine the smaller Cesar Chavez geographical area with the leadership team from the much larger El Pueblo Network application. This came about after El Concilio leaders Gavino Fernandez and Robert Donley - key to the El Pueblo team, but longtime rivals of Cesar Chavez team leaders Lori and Sabino Renteria - launched a blistering attack from the floor, replete with charges of racism, at both the Renterias and city planning director Roger Duncan and his staff. (El Pueblo came in mid-pack in the commission's overall rankings, which largely echo the staff recommendation.) While the commission was only supposed to select two neighborhoods, Dawson (south) and Chestnut (east) were effectively tied for #2; the commission's recommendation includes strongly urging the city council to find the bucks for three neighborhoods. Council makes the final selection on August 21... - M.C.M.
Austin Interfaith, local businesses, and various dignitaries saw eye to eye this week as Interfaith capped its summer youth employment program with a celebration that included a round of success stories. The Interfaith program has a success story of its own to tell. The effort, which began five years ago with 50 kids, has since grown to include 1,000 teens and a diverse range of employers from Samsung, Hyatt Regency, the University of Texas, and Austin Community College... - A.S.
Amungme tribal leader Tom Beanal's multi-billion dollar lawsuit against New Orleans-based Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold was dismissed for the second time last week. Earlier this year, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that Beanal's original suit, which contends that Freeport is responsible for a host of human rights and environmental violations in and around the company's huge Indonesian gold mine, was too broadly written. An amended version of the complaint was thrown out on August 8. But the court allowed Beanal to amend and re-file the complaint, which was subsequently thrown out. In a press release listed on Freeport's Web page at http://www.fcx.com, Freeport spokesman Garland Robinette said, "Once again the Court has thrown out legally deficient and baseless claims." - R.B.
School of Controversy
In a decision seemingly crafted to hack off as many people as possible, the Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees voted August 11 to build two new middle schools on controversial sites in Southwest Austin.
Since last year's AISD mega-bond package was designed to alleviate school overcrowding, and since the district's most crowded schools are in the Southwest - Bailey and Covington Middle Schools and Kiker Elementary - the general location of the two new schools is no big deal. However, although AISD staff claims to have examined hundreds of potential sites, by the time the process emerged into public view, the list had been narrowed to five, two nearly adjacent sites near Slaughter Lane and Manchaca Road (south of Bedichek Middle School) and three west of Brodie Lane, all within the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone and/or the Barton Creek Watershed. As presented to the board, selection of one of the Manchaca Road sites was a given; the question was where to put the other one.
The far-west sites ensured that the selection process would turn into a center-vs.-suburbs battle. At the August 7 public hearing on site selection, an all-star cast of central city progressives, including reps from the Save Our Springs Alliance, Save Austin Neighborhoods and Environment (SANE), El Concilio, Save Barton Creek Assoc., and the Austin Neighborhoods Council, urged the board to eschew the sprawl-promoting, developer-pleasing and environmentally damaging (in their view) western sites. Conversely, a sizable detachment of Southwest Austin parents urged the opposite, with their favorite site being at Slaughter and FM 1828, hard by Circle C Ranch.
Equally visible, though, was a third camp - the South Austin Soccer Parents, pleading with the board to pick any site except the one adjacent to Patton Elementary in Sunset Valley, owned by AISD but developed as the Westcreek soccer complex, one of the city's most elaborate soccer facilities. Since the Westcreek site was the only one lying directly over the recharge zone, and the farthest from the new Southwest subdivisions, opposition to it was about the only thing the various speakers had in common.
So, of course, at its August 11 meeting, the AISD board chose the Westcreek site. Earlier that day, the S.O.S. Alliance filed suit against the district, seeking an injunction and investigation to determine if AISD violated open-meetings law during the preliminary deliberations that produced the five-site list. Given the suspicious proximity of the two more-central sites on the table - a seeming guarantee the board would go west - the scent of a fix was smelled by more than one speaker at the public hearing. "That does look kind of dumb," veteran activist Shudde Fath told the board. "You're making yourselves look bad." - M.C.M.
The privatization bandwagon rolled into town again last week, and the city's health clinics are being dragged along kicking and screaming. City Council last week seemed ready to approve a plan for Laboratory Corporation of America (LCA) to take over the lab end of clinic operations, but delayed action at the urging of clinic nurses and doctors, who will be picking up the slack from having fewer on-site personnel.
"What goes next? Pharmacy services? Smaller clinics? Nurses? That's when the emergency rooms will really start busting at the seams," said Montopolis clinic nurse Angie Diaz. With the turnaround on test results changing from 20 minutes to two hours, clinic staffers worried that more patients will have to go to hospital emergency rooms when their condition is thought to be serious. City staff assured the council that, though a few more patients will end up in emergency rooms, the overall cost savings of the program still balanced out that expense.
City Manager Jesus Garza said expense is the key issue with the city clinics. "Our cost per patient is $125 and the market's is $96. Every change we've brought has met with resistance and delay," he complained. Council sent the issue back to a special-called joint meeting of the Federally Qualified Health Clinics board and the Indigent Work Care Team. Council revisits the matter on August 21. - K.V.
Triangle on Trial
After a Hyde Park Neighborhood Association member survey produced a 20-to-1 thumbs-down on the Triangle Square project, the NA officially voiced its opposition to the shopping complex at an August 7 news conference in conjunction with the ad hoc anti-mall Neighbors of Triangle Park. Anyone who's driven through Hyde Park and counted anti-Triangle yard signs knows that opposition is widespread, but the back story behind the HPNA move is more complex. While the NTP, only in existence since April, has mobilized thousands of angry neighbors to fight the project, reps from the HPNA and 10 other North Central neighborhood groups have been working with prospective Triangle developer Cencor Realty for nearly a year, making changes to the project.
Hyde Park NA vice-president Jennifer Vickers took care not to describe these meetings as "negotiations," and NTP leader Charles Burmeister described them as "largely fruitless [since] most of the important issues aren't on the table." The NTP's goal - to stop Triangle Square by any means necessary - was thought to be impossible by HPNA and the other NAs; hence their willingness to work with the developer. This has led to much ugliness within the ranks of HPNA, likely Austin's most powerful NA, with the leadership tagged as sellouts and the rank-and-file activists as dangerous radicals. Where this leaves Cencor, and other developers who thought the best way to local hearts was through the NAs, remains to be seen. Right now, all sides of the Triangle agree with the assessment by Cencor's Tom Terkel: "There's got to be a better way to do this." - M.C.M.
Famed Austin performers Marcia Ball and Christine Albert made live appearances at City Hall last week, but they weren't there to entertain. They were part of a contingent of Texas music stalwarts, including Austin City Limits producer Terry Lickona and South by Southwest director Roland Swenson, who came to urge the council not to cut the Austin Music Network out of this year's city budget.
The group said the network is an important symbol of Austin's commitment to fostering homegrown talent and building a music infrastructure. "Austin's a special place... and if it's unique, it's because we support our own," said Ball. Bob Melton, of the Austin Songwriter's Group, reminded the council not to neglect the industry which gives the city its valuable cosmopolitan image. "More people know the city as the Live Entertainment Capital of the World than as the City of Ideas," he said.
The AMN supporters seized on an agenda item to approve an INet cable connection for the August 17 AMN benefit concert at Liberty Lunch as a chance to speak up for the endangered network. Councilmember Jackie Goodman joined the chorus of support, saying the council should "put another nickel in the nickelodeon" this budget year.
Offering a fiscal argument, Arista Austin Vice President Cameron Randle deemed AMN a "uniquely supportive" welcome mat for recording companies that generate millions of dollars in the local economy. Later, however, Randle said his label would have no fiscal incentive to help subsidize the network if the city does not fund it. "Our first and foremost objective is to sell records," said Randle. "There's no way to quantify whether or not anybody is going to see income generated as a result of exposure on the network." Likewise, the council cannot be sure how much economic boost the AMN gives Austin, but it might decide soon whether the network's $280,000 budget is at least justifiable as a token of friendship toward musicians and industry executives. - K.F.
Mom, Dad, I'm...
Planned Parenthood has launched the first legal attack on the state's new parental consent law. Planned Parenthood of Houston and Southeast Texas filed a lawsuit last month against rider 14 of the state appropriations bill. The rider requires minors to have parental consent to obtain contraceptives and medication for treating sexually transmitted diseases from state-funded family planning clinics.
Austin's Planned Parenthood and public clinics across the state support the Houston branch's initiative. "This legislative rider is bad public health policy," says Glenda Parks, director of Planned Parenthood of Austin. "It will result in more sexually transmitted infections, more unintended pregnancies, and more abortions for Texas teenagers."
Parental notification is a relatively new legislative tool; conservative lawmakers hope it will steer minors into abstinence, while others see the measure as a parental rights' issue. For low-income minors, the stakes are high. Some 110,000 Texas minors seek family planning services from publicly funded programs each year, and Texas has one of the worst adolescent pregnancy rates in the U.S. Austin lawyer Martha Dickie is the lead counsel on the Planned Parenthood lawsuit. - N.K.