Off the Desk
The Board of Adjustment settled the Duval Center parking dispute (for now) on Monday, Sept. 8, by refusing to grant the parking variance requested by Austin Java Company. Center owner Ed Shaw and Hyde Park Bar & Grill's Bick Brown meet this week to search for a suitable tenant. -- V.B.W.
It begins. You just knew the chummy perma-grins on the Salamander Seven couldn't last forever, but it took the brutality of budget season to finally rub the fuzz off their peach. The final 5-2 vote on the city budget Wednesday began with rumblings of ranks-breaking on Monday, Sept. 15, when Councilmembers Beverly Griffith and Bill Spelman banded together to rebel against the proposed property tax hike. City Manager Jesus Garza proposed a 2cents per $100 hike. But there was trouble in paradise when Daryl Slusher began the push with the support of council to bring that hike in line with 3% inflation, or 1.5cents per $100.
Mayor Kirk Watson and Councilmembers Jackie Goodman and Gus Garcia got Slusher on board with a compromise -- his push for 1.5cents became 1.75cents. But Griffith and Spelman weren't ready to make nice. Vowing to find the $517,000 necessary to lower the tax rate that last quarter-cent, Griffith and Spelman were on a mission to grab every available cut for their quarter cent campaign.
Unfortunately for the rebels, they lacked support from two key figures -- Slusher and Watson -- who not only argued that the extra property tax is needed for "catch up," but who also were clearly anxious to finish budget deliberations. "I would take it to 1.5 cents," said Slusher, "but you gotta find the cuts. I don't see the cuts there." At Tuesday's second reading, the rebels staged a mini-filibuster, presenting council with 36 proposed cuts on everything from meter maids to telecommunications. Council, and Watson in particular, were not amused. As Griffith tossed up nine of her top cuts one by one -- adding up to the magic $517,000 -- her proposals were summarily blown out of the sky, like so much skeet. But Griffith did succeed in lobbying Goodman to stick by her on one thing: Watson was pushing to finish both the second and final readings of the budget on Tuesday, but he needed Goodman's vote. She respectfully declined and threw her vote in with Griffith's proposal to meet again for the final reading on Wednesday.
Although Spelman conceded that the savings to the average taxpayer from the quarter cent would only amount to the "price of a Big Mac" -- about $2.50 per year -- the rebels seemed to be fighting more for the principle of the thing. Watson appeared to believe the argument was a waste of time. "We had three public hearings and no person came down to say: 'Lower taxes.' This isn't where the real expense is," he said. So, what is the real expense? Though no one was saying it, Griffith's popular Social Fabric programs did account for a large chunk of new spending this year. Long after press and council had evacuated chambers, Spelman and Griffith lolled about with the glows of the newly martyred. "What happens is when the tax increase is passed, no one reacts. Then, when they get their tax bill, they react very strongly," said Griffith. When the tax bills roll in next year, look for Griffith to be gleefully directing all complaints down the hall to the Mayor's office. -- K.V.
"We'll get it funded," was Councilmember Daryl Slusher's claim when cornered at the Chron's 16th B-day party last Sunday. The "it" in question here is the Austin Music Network. Sure enough, not 24 hours later at Monday's special council meeting to consider amendments to the upcoming budget, council voted unanimously to reinstate the AMN. Well, they voted to semi-reinstate it anyway. The council approved the $150,000 that the Financial Services department recently "found" for the network, roughly six months worth of money. "I think it's appropriate that the city have the network... but I prefer that it not be in the general fund competing with police, fire, EMS, roads, parks," said Slusher. "A TV channel is a resource. It shouldn't be something we're having to scramble around to fund," he added.
Slusher floated the idea that money for the network come from the city's bed tax revenues since the AMN could be used to promote tourism -- this being the "Live Music Capital of the World" and all. It's not an outlandish idea when you consider that the network was created as an economic development project for the city in the first place, and that one of the largest conventions held in Austin each year is the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference.
As a device to promote tourism, Slusher suggested that programming be expanded to include such things as walking tours of Austin, East Austin tours, club tours, historical programming, museum listings, and club listings, while "keeping the majority of the channel Austin music." So while the network lives for now, there are still a few questions. Most obviously: What happens in six months? Other than for political expediency, it makes no sense to throw $150,000 at something to keep it on life support for a while longer if you intend to let it die quietly when the money runs out. Credit Slusher for at least suggesting a long-term solution that could be worked out in the next six months.
Also, the network just made some equipment purchases (someone connected with the AMN put the cost at around $38,000). Make no mistake, the AMN desperately needs better equipment. However, the AMN didn't know what its fate would be until Monday's meeting. Marilyn Fox from the finance department claimed that there was about $25,000 left in the AMN budget and that the equipment could also be used at Channel 6. -- M.B.
ALLC Wins Suit
After eons of wrangling with the city to get a campaign finance reform measure on the ballot, Austinites for a Little Less Corruption! (ALLC) are claiming victory in a federal judge's ruling that clears the way for the voter initiative. District Judge Sam Sparks last week handed down a sharply worded opinion that essentially chastises the city for refusing to validate nearly 15,000 of 29,000 signatures of residents who signed a petition in support of the initiative.
ALLC seeks a $100 cap on each contribution to city council candidates. The city refused to validate almost half of the petition's signatures because they did not include voter registration numbers, but the court disagreed. "The [voter registration] number requirement appears to be nothing more than a harassment tool because the primary effect of the requirement is to make it harder, if not impossible, for citizens to conduct petition drives," Sparks wrote.
Austin attorney Renea Hicks, who defended the city in the ALLC lawsuit, said the judge's ruling speaks for itself. The city has until Sept. 29 to argue against placing the measure on the ballot. The city has a short time frame in which to consider placing a couple of other dicey issues on the ballot -- a measure to create single-member voting districts, and a proposal, known as "Our City, Our Choice," to amend the city charter to require voter approval on city money spent on facilities outside city limits. -- A.S.
Hightower Airs Locally
More than a year after its debut, Jim Hightower's nationally syndicated radio program will finally be broadcast in its city of origin. KNEZ (1530 AM), also known as "K-News," decided to begin carrying Hightower's Chat & Chew Cafe after local business owners Tamara Sbelgio and Jim Holland lined up a group of sponsors in a show of support for the populist commentator and former Texas Agriculture Commissioner. The lack of a local carrier for the call-in program, which broadcasts daily from Threadgill's World Headquarters and airs on 80 stations nationwide, has been a source of consternation for local progressives tired of the constant flow of right-wing opinion currently dominating local and national talk radio.
"I'm absolutely delighted," Hightower said on Tuesday. "This station is going to be a real good venue for us. KNEZ is a very entrepreneurial station, an independent taking on the big guys, which fits the whole tone of our show." KNEZ took over the 1530 frequency last year. -- L.N.
A Driskill Gala
As an accomplished schmoozer in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth Birch, the national president of the Human Rights Campaign, said all the right things during her first visit to Austin last Saturday. The keynote speaker for the local HRC's annual black-tie gala, Birch told Austinites they sure were lucky to have a mayor like Kirk Watson and a sheriff like Margo Frasier. She went on to call Dianne Hardy-Garcia a national treasure for her work as executive director of the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas.
What Birch didn't mention was that the turnout -- about 300 smartly dressed folks -- was disappointingly low, especially when compared to last year's horde of party-goers. But then, last year was a big-time election year that had politicos galore swarming the event -- people like Sheriff Frasier and District Attorney Ronnie Earle, for example, who were candidates on the November ballot. This year, for whatever reason, Frasier and Earle were both no-shows. Not even Garry Mauro, a likely Democratic candidate for governor, attended this year's fundraiser, although a Mauro staffer at the gala noted that his boss did purchase a ticket. At any rate, the public servants on hand this year at the Driskill Hotel included Watson, who emceed the program, Councilmembers Beverly Griffith and Willie Lewis, and Travis County Attorney Ken Oden. Taking home this year's honors for championing lesbian and gay rights were Hardy-Garcia for her lobbying efforts at the Texas Legislature, the Austin Festival of Dance for AIDS fundraising, and the local IBM outfit for "corporate courage." -- A.S.