Naked City

Off the Desk:

Michelle Kay, one of the local daily's most experienced political reporters, has jumped ship. Kay will soon be directing press affairs for Republican Attorney General candidate John Cornyn. Kay's departure from the daily was not a surprise, according to some staffers at the paper, who say that she had been on leave from the Statesman for several weeks. A spokesman at the Cornyn campaign office said that Kay, who is currently in London, will start her job on June 2. Kay is the second local political reporter to join the AG's race. Six weeks ago, former Chronicle politics editor Audrey Duff became the press aide to Democratic candidate Jim Mattox... - R.B.

Robin Cravey, top aide to Councilmember Daryl Slusher and former Councilmember Max Nofziger, will leave his city hall post next month to hang out his attorney-at-law shingle specializing in environmental law and other civil matters. Ramona Perrault, Slusher's executive secretary, will succeed Cravey. Perrault, who worked on Slusher's campaign for council, is a former staffer at the Save Our Springs Alliance... - A.S.

Sometimes the news is kookier than anything that can be made up. On May 7, the San Angelo Standard-Times contained this lead sentence: "Rick Perry on Wednesday brought his lieutenant governor campaign to the Tom Green County Library, where he donated a book he found on the ground outside." - R.B.

Land Grab

City officials charged with piecing together the watershed protection zone approved by voters with the passage of Proposition 2 promise to deliver the 15,000 acres of aquifer recharge land, but they say the process is "like playing a giant 3-D game" - and they aren't winning every round. "We landed right in the middle of this hot real estate market, with a lot of speculation going on," says James King, the Nature Conservancy's director of land protection. "There are some people out there willing to pay more than what would be argued is fair market value." The Nature Conservancy is playing go-between in the city's negotiations with landowners. King says the city's bargaining position is further weakened by its limited supply of "earnest" money, or the security deposit a potential buyer fronts a seller as a condition for tying the land up in contract negotiations. The city can offer only a few thousand dollars - a developer might offer as much as $100,000, says King.

So far, the city has filed contracts for 17 tracts with title companies, the city's Real Estate Services Division reports, though the office will not divulge how much acreage that represents. On at least one tract, owned by ranchers Ralph and Lois Pfluger, the city may lose out to developer king Gary Bradley. The Pfluger tract lies adjacent to John Lloyd's Spillar Ranch, where extensive residential and office development is proposed. Ralph Pfluger says he likes the proposal he has received from the city but feels "he's not in the driver's seat" because of an existing option on his land owned by the Hooker family estate in San Antonio. Some local residents, hopeful that the city could surround the Spillar Ranch and curtail any future expansion, have surmised that Bradley - who some suspect is involved in the Spillar development - countered the city's offer with a better one. But Bradley says he has never approached Pfluger to negotiate a deal, although Pfluger says he's known for at least two years that Bradley was interested in the property. The Nature Conservancy's King has said that he understood that "the first buyer wanted to flip it to another buyer," which could support the notion that if the Hooker family estate exercises its option to buy the land, Bradley would likely be the next owner.

Bradley has stated in a letter to the Chronicle that he is not opposed to the city buying watershed protection land. He told the Chronicle this week that any competition between him and the city is strictly coincidental because confidentiality agreements between buyer and seller make it impossible to even know who is negotiating for particular tracts. Bradley says he's just "chilling out" while the city goes about its business, and that he's not interested in investing in the current climate.

"The last thing I want to do is go out and compete with the city of Austin and its aggressive program, and say I'll pay more than fair market value for this land," says Bradley. "No one would be interested in going up against that $65 million slush fund." Bradley says he doubts whether developers are engaged in a shopping frenzy over land in the watershed area - the factor which city officials have said makes it imperative to maintain secrecy over its negotiations. "Why would you jump in now that S.O.S has been upheld by the [Supreme] Court, and you've got seven Greens on the City Council? All the bullets are loaded against you... Your life [acquiring] entitlement is just that much harder," Bradley says.

As for King, he says that overall he's "very pleased" with the progress the city has made. No one will confirm how many targeted tracts the city has been unable to get contracts on, though King says "maybe two or three," and Assistant City Manager Toby Futrell says that competition for the Pfluger tract is "not an isolated case." King points out that even if the city fails to sign a contract on some tracts, it may become the owner eventually if it waits on the sidelines as initial arrangements fall through. One ace the city holds, says King, is the certainty that speculative developers face a very long "feasibility period," or process of permitting the land for construction. Some speculators may decide it's just not worth the time and expense to follow through, says King.

Village of Bear Creek residents, next door to the Circle C Ranch, have been hoping that the city could buy land at the northwest corner of Spillar Ranch, to prevent a road being built to connect that development with FM 1826, which carries high-speed traffic past the driveways of homeowners in that area. Bradley says he's not interested in linking Spillar with FM 1826, which he says is too winding and constricted to be an adequate access road. - K.F.

Campaign Setback

Travis County commissioner candidate Nan Clayton will await the outcome of her surgery today, May 21, before deciding whether she will stay in the hotly contested Pct. 3 race leading to the November election. Clayton, 62, was recently diagnosed with breast cancer, but because it was detected in its early stage, doctors have given the Democratic nominee a favorable prognosis.

Travis County Democratic Party chair Jay Brim says he and Clayton supporters are urging her to stay in the race against GOP candidate Todd Baxter and independent hopeful Kirk Mitchell. Clayton could not be reached at press time.

"So many of us are touched by cancer these days," Brim says, "and we've come a long way since the days we never even talked about it. We can learn so much from cancer survivors - and it doesn't hurt the public to experience this sort of thing. But this is a decision Nan has to make, and if she decides to stay in the race then, by golly, I'll support her 100 percent."

Should Clayton opt out, however, party leader Brim would assemble the precinct chairs in this vast southwestern county area to pick a replacement candidate, which could virtually be anybody - from Clayton's opponent in the primary, Ann Graham, to one of the early prospective candidates who ultimately decided against running for the seat - Texas Freedom Network's Cecile Richards, and Public Citizen's Tom "Smitty" Smith, to name a couple. Mitchell, the indie contender, had also pondered running as a party candidate before jumping the Dem ship and going solo. - A.S.

Use It or News It

Anyone who caught the Statesman's May 13 Metro-State headline, "Spend it or lose it, HUD tells housing," probably spent a worried minute wondering if the impending doom the article promised for Austin's Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department (NHCD) might actually come to pass. Well, don't worry, be skeptical. According to the Statesman, NHCD's entire $8 million annual federal subsidy was hinging on its ability to spend down a $4.1 million surplus of federal funding on city-approved programs for low-income families. This claim seemed particularly pressing when backed up by the fact that a similar spending quandary met the department almost exactly a year ago to the date of the May 13 article, resulting in last year's emergency spending spree and the ouster of NHCD head Bill Cook.

However, this year's situation and last year's are not at all identical, according to the federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) officials who oversee Austin's subsidy. "I think [the reporter] was trying to build a case there when she really didn't have solid information," says HUD spokesperson Larry Wilkinson. While HUD agrees that NHCD's spending had been mismanaged in the past, HUD officials characterize the current attempt to correct the problem as a "partnership" with NHCD.

Specifically, of the $4.1 million which the Statesman worries will sink NHCD, $1.4 million had already been spent by the time the story ran, and the other $2.7 million is budgeted for spending by July 31, in a plan HUD approved during a routine visit to Austin several days before the Statesman published its story. Last year's NHCD spending disaster resulted from having no spending plan for a $2.8 million surplus until the day before a deadline, after which the funding would have been rescinded.

One of Austin's problems has been "drawing down" the federal money quickly enough. NHCD officials fund city programs first from the city's general fund and then draw down money from the federal government to reimburse the city. Since individual programs have already been funded, there is rarely a fire lit under NHCD employees to draw down the reimbursement immediately, and the chore - a nightmare of paperwork - often gets put off to the last minute. Add bureaucratic procrastination to the fact that HUD is switching to a complex computerized system which NHCD officials are still learning, and you've got a recipe for delay.

"I think [NHCD] is headed in the right direction," says HUD official Richard Lopez, in a predictably politic endorsement of the department's efforts to reform.

The daily's error seems to have come from being sidetracked into bashing NHCD by following an unrelated story - that of a missing check for already approved funding for the Southeast Corner Alliance of Neighborhoods (SCAN). Diane Sanders, SCAN president, asserts that mismanagement and a high turnover rate at NHCD have caused $14,000 in funding for her group to be lost in the shuffle since March 3. NHCD confirms that SCAN's funding is approved but not yet dispensed due to administrative delays. But both HUD and NHCD officials said that SCAN's late check has nothing to do with NHCD's spending ratio, and both agencies added that neither the SCAN check nor NHCD's spending habits were currently a threat to Austin's continued $8 million in federal funding. - K.V.

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