Off the Desk:
More than 40,000 people depend on the Edwards Aquifer as their sole source of drinking water. That's a big responsibility for the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, which is why it's soliciting candidates to file for two open board seats. An election on May 2 will determine who will fill the board's Precincts 2 and 5 seats, currently held by Don Turner and Sue Johnson. Neither incumbent has announced their intention to run for another term. Filing for the positions begins Feb. 13 and runs through March 23. The District is charged by the Legislature with conserving and protecting the water supply...
You pay your $10 and you get a night of music and dancing, Thursday, Feb. 19 at the Victory Grill, 1104 E. 11th. In the end, proceeds go to benefit the displaced refugees in Acteál, Chiapas. The Chiapachanga fundraiser starts at 7pm. The lineup looks like this: Big Game Hunter, Concerto Grosso, and Roots and Wisdom. Call 416-8885 for details... - A.S.
When the city council held its back-patting public hearing last week on the proposed expansion of the Austin Convention Center and revitalization of Waller Creek, there was only one spoiler in the chamber full of boosters - residents of the Railyard Apartments. It seems that 88 units of the shocking pink 200-unit complex at 201 E. Fourth are dead in the sites of the convention center's wrecking ball for its proposed northward expansion. Railyard residents presented council with a package of letters and 133 signatures from Railyard residents protesting the city's plans. "The mayor and city council describe residential as the missing ingredient in revitalizing downtown. I kind of think that's contradictory," said Railyard manager Sita Cilfone.
Mayor Kirk Watson immediately jumped to comment on Cilfone's protest. "Goodness gracious knows that I've been a major proponent for a residential downtown," he said, touting the tourism to be spurred by the convention center expansion as a clean industry. "But there's a balance that needs to be struck."
One wonders how Watson envisions that balance, when the city's own proposed downtown residential housing and other city-subsidized residential downtown projects such as the Brown building will rent for between $850 and $2,000 a month. The Railyard, which has been successfully occupied since its construction in the early Eighties, rents for as low as $550 a month (for long-term residents who moved in before rents in Austin went through the roof) to between $650 and $840 for new residents of one-bedroom apartments.
One city official points out that the Railyard's owners stand to gain a great deal by inflating the value of their land by any means necessary, and suggests that this recent campaign likely has more to do with cash than a genuine desire to preserve homes. Cilfone calls that sour grapes, adding that it's ridiculous to suggest that the Railyard is doing any kind of deal when, in fact, the city has not to this day officially contacted Railyard management or ownership. "They're basically acting like we don't exist," says Railyard resident Jennifer Clerman. - K.V.
JPI on Hold
Call it a win for the neighborhood. The win may last only a month, but the Barton View Neighborhood Association, which turned out in force at the city's Board of Adjustment hearing on Monday night, convinced the five-member board to delay a decision on granting variances to an office complex proposed for a tract of land at Loop 360 and Barton Creek.
JPI Texas Development, Inc., Austin's biggest apartment developer, had sought a height variance to allow 78-foot-tall office buildings instead of the previously approved 60-foot structures. The variances were to be part of JPI's voluntary compliance with the Save Our Springs Ordinance. According to city officials, JPI has existing approvals that could allow the company to build a project with 57% impervious cover. Under the plan before the board on Monday night, the office complex would have just 15% impervious cover.
But none of that was resonating with adjustment board chairman Keith Warner. After JPI's Art Carpenter introduced the proposal to the board, Warner questioned Carpenter about the timing, saying he was bothered by the fact the neighborhood association had not had more time to discuss the latest iteration of JPI's proposal, which was first shown to the neighbors on Sunday afternoon. "And if it bothers me, it may bother some of the other people up here." Warner asked Carpenter and attorney David Armbrust if they would agree to postpone the variance hearing for a month. After a short consultation, the two refused, saying, "We've postponed this once. We would request that the hearing proceed."
Steve Portnoy, the president of the neighborhood association, then asked the board to deny the variance request, saying, "This land should remain in its natural state." Portnoy, one of about two dozen neighborhood residents who showed up at the hearing, also argued that the board should not grant a variance based on the economic considerations that JPI was citing. After Portnoy's plea, Warner introduced a motion to delay the hearing for a month. He also told Carpenter that if the city council is indeed supportive of the JPI proposal, "Let's see some letters. Let's get some city support." Warner's motion to delay the hearing passed unanimously. Afterwards, a glum-looking Carpenter was noncommittal about JPI's immediate plans. "We have some decision-making to do," he said. "There is single-minded opposition in the neighborhood." - R.B.
Read Their Lips
If the Indigent Care Work Team (ICWT) has its way, there might be a new sheriff in town policing your tax dollars. The ICWT was assembled to review the local policy on health care for indigent - that is, uninsured - citizens. Currently, portions of both the City of Austin and Travis County budgets fund a system of county-wide clinics which serve the indigent. But in a system funded and overseen by two masters, inefficiency has left the clinics vulnerable to privatization and budget cuts. The ICWT's solution, presented to a joint meeting of the county commissioners court and the city council on Wednesday, is to create a new taxing entity called a hospital district.
Before you get your tax dollars all in a wad, however, the ICWT says the creation of this new taxing authority would not necessarily mean higher taxes. If the city and county commit to drop their tax rates by the same amount the hospital district would charge, tax rates would remain the same. However, once endowed with taxing authority, the hospital district could tax at whatever level it deemed necessary. "The only way this is going to work is if both bodies give up their turf-ism and work together," says the ICWT's Dr. Chris Fabre.
That doesn't seem too likely. While Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire attacked the ICWT's conclusions, newly appointed County Commissioner Margaret Moore expressed reticence on the whole concept of indigent health care. "I'm being constrained by certain economic realities," she complained, saying that there was no reason for indigent care to offer perks her own insurance did not, such as transportation to and from clinics.
For their part, city councilmembers seem somewhat more receptive to the ICWT's conclusions, but action on their recommendations isn't likely to come soon. Councilmember Beverly Griffith is kicking around ideas like paying a "change-management" consultant to steer the clinics through this time of strife. And she and Mayor Kirk Watson seem to agree (a rarity) on the need to focus on increasing clinic efficiency as a possible solution before initiating the drastic action of a new taxing district. - K.V.
Austin Music Network overseers Marilyn Fox and Paul Smolen will expire before the music channel. The pair turned in their resignations Tuesday, Feb 10th, listing a Feb. 28 departure date. "I'm devastated," said Betty Dunkerley, the city's financial and administrative services director. She said Fox and Smolen had spent the last month with her discussing their probable leave-taking from the city. The two will provide telecommunications consulting services for a company called RMI of Austin.
Where does this leave AMN? "I guess I'm it," Dunkerley said. She denied rumors that the pair's departure was precipitated at the request of city councilmembers. "I think everyone has been kind of frustrated with what do with the music channel," she said. "It's just been real frustrating for everybody."
Despite the grimness of the mood this week, last week's city council was still providing a few laughs for the folks who hung around past 11pm to speak on behalf of the network. When Councilmember Gus Garcia let it be known that the council knew what it wanted from the AMN, and could deliver those guidelines "by tomorrow morning," Mayor Kirk Watson jumped right in to remind him: "That would be 30 minutes from now." After all the discussion and all the emotional pleas from various quarters of the music industry, the council authorized $50,000 for the AMN by a vote of 5-0, with one abstention (Beverly Griffith) and another on a plane to D.C. (Bill Spelman). That money, however, will not do much except keep the AMN going long enough to issue a Request for Proposals and hopefully have someone take control of the network without missing a note. So by the end of May, the AMN as it is known now, will be no more.
While the Feb. 5 meeting saved the network for now, it's at the Thursday, Feb. 12 meeting that the council will discuss where to find funding. And the AMN will need more funding, even if it gets privatized. The only plan already on the table that gives concrete numbers - a proposal offered by Rick Melchior - asks for $500,000 for the next two years. Garcia and Daryl Slusher said they would bring a resolution before council at the next meeting that will explore other funding options; specifically mentioned were monies from the bed tax and the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, among other sources. The shape of the AMN is also TBA, but that will have to come out of the responses to the RFP. Council did indicate, though, that it was amenable to public-private partnerships and nonprofit solutions, as well as privatizing the AMN. In fact, council was pretty optimistic across the board, though that optimism was tempered with a need to find a new and less council-dependent way to keep the network on the air. - M.B.