Naked City

Austin Stories

The end appears to be close at hand for Victoria Sen. Ken Armbrister's bill (SB 1812) to create a special taxing district for a hotel and golf resort on land owned by Gary Bradley in Hays County, thanks to the imminent appointment of an interim committee that will study all school finance issues and report back to the Legislature next session. Armbrister says the creation of the committee means nothing will happen in school finance until next session. And, good intentions or no, the education district created by the bill -- subjected to scrutiny first because it was an apparent violation of the city of Austin's agreement with Bradley, and later because it would have funneled public tax dollars through a private foundation and back into the Hays school district -- will have to pass some stern funding equity tests before its revenues can be turned into band trips, laptops, and elementary school robotics programs for Hays Consolidated ISD.

Armbrister says any money generated by the district would have to be counted toward the school district's total per-student wealth, which is used to determine whether a district has to send money back to the state under the "Robin Hood" law. "Any revenue that comes in from any source has to be counted in the mix … even though it's not from a taxable source," Armbrister says. "It's not shielding money or shielding income from taxation." But according to Laurie Cromwell, president of the board for the Hays Consolidated ISD Education Foundation, which would have received 100% of the revenues from Armbrister's taxing district, private donations -- including future sales tax revenue from the hotel and golf resort, which would be channeled through the foundation -- do not count toward the district's property-wealth cap, even though, under Armbrister's plan, the money would come out of public bed-tax dollars. The plan, Cromwell says, "does not interfere with Robin Hood or the way that the school finance system is set up right now."

But the truth, says Steven Collins, executive director of the Texas Legislative Council, is that no one really knows. Even though there may be no prohibition against sending public tax dollars to a private beneficiary -- the per-student wealth cap is determined by dividing the total property value taxed by a school district by the number of students, so sales taxes wouldn't directly influence the total -- Collins says the issue is so new, it's unclear how a court would rule on the district's constitutionality. "If [the districts] became popular, the Legislature might feel the need to come back and account for that foundation income [within] any school district that benefits from it" to make sure the system doesn't become inequitable, Collins says. The same concern could be raised about educational foundations themselves, which, although popular -- Austin has one, as does Eanes ISD -- might not exactly meet everyone's standard for equity. Some, in fact, have called such foundations an end-run around finance equity laws. Would a foundation set up to benefit a school district in the Valley generate as much money in private contributions as one in Williamson County? Would a developer choose to locate a hotel and golf resort in Brownsville?

If the taxing district eventually passes, suggests Dick Lavine, a senior analyst with the Center for Public Policy Priorities, "I'm sure every district in the state would try to get in on the action" by forming their own taxing districts. The traffic to the Capitol steps could be especially heavy from rapidly growing suburban areas like Hays County, another insider suggests. And in the future, such districts might not dedicate 100% of their revenues to education, as Armbrister's would have done, opening the same can of worms the long controversy over SB 1812 was supposed to close for good.

For now, anyway, it doesn't much matter; the largely rural, majority-minority Hays CISD is still property-poor, and, according to Milli Christner, the foundation's executive director, often lacks the resources to pay for extras like tutors and keeping libraries and computer labs open after hours. But with a generous handful of large developments planned for the northeastern corner of Hays County, that equation could shift within years, not decades…

Kirk for comptroller? It's not the likeliest fit, but many are saying it's looking less and less probable that the politically obscure mayor (at least statewide) will run against popular incumbent Attorney General John Cornyn in 2002. But if Carole Keeton Rylander gives up her position to run for lieutenant governor, that race will be wide open for Watson (or any other up-and-coming pol looking for a higher profile) to grab. Chances are the mayor won't make a decision until after the upcoming budget cycle, when a city property tax rate increase -- the first in nearly a decade -- may finally be coming…

It doesn't take a tree-hugger to understand the benefits of trees: They generate oxygen, they keep things cool, and they're easy on the eyes. So why is it that Austin loses nine trees for every new one planted each year? Whatever the reason, City Council Member Raul Alvarez and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman want to nip that bad habit in the bud with a new program designed to increase the city's piddling 1,500 tree plantings per year to at least 5,000 annually. Today, Thursday, May 17, the councilmates plan to introduce the far-reaching Urban Heat Island Initiative, which seeks to mitigate the so-called heat island effect that can raise a city's temperature as much as 20 degrees higher than the surrounding rural areas. The program would emulate what other cities have already undertaken in recent years, with surprisingly successful results, according to longtime activist Paul Robbins. Robbins was one of several members of a working group who drew up a report and a list of recommendations for the council. One good role model is Sacramento, which plants about 25,000 trees per year and has one of the most intensive urban forestry programs in the country. Sacramento's energy savings have been calculated at $8 for every tree. One 1997 Austin study estimated that if the city increased its tree canopy coverage to 40%, up from 34%, the city would save more than $200 million in air pollution and storm water costs (trees reduce storm water runoff that causes flooding). Just think, if the program flies, maybe there'll be some truth to the city's cheery proclamation that Austin is a "Tree City USA"…

Online drug company Rx.com closed its doors for good last Friday, when employees were informed in a memo from CEO Roger Phillips that they had the rest of the day to clean out their desks and leave. (According to the Hoover's business database, the company had 75 employees as of May 1.) "It is with the greatest regret and sorrow that I must inform you that effective May 11, 2001, Rx.com will be ceasing its current business operations," Phillips wrote in the memo, which was posted to an Internet discussion board the previous Sunday. "Due to economic circumstances that were beyond all of our control, we are unable to operate as we have in the past. I sincerely wish that more notice could have been provided." The employees who were laid off reportedly received no severance pay as part of their parting package; Phillips did not return a call from the Chronicle seeking comment. As of Monday, May 14, the company's Web site consisted entirely of this terse announcement: "Rx.com is no longer filling prescriptions. To check on the status of a prescription that you have recently placed with Rx.com, please call our customer service department at 1.888.81RXCOM (888.817.9266)." By Wednesday, the Web site had been taken down. All of which lends a whole new meaning to the company's none-too-prescient slogan: "Rx.com: We never, ever close!"…

At UT, the simmering battle over free speech issues -- triggered by February demonstrations against a grisly Justice for All anti-abortion exhibit on campus -- has dwindled but not quite died. As the spring term came to an end, numerous committees were examining the issues -- while activists on both sides of the abortion debate were pointing to the free rein given corporations to advertise, hold noisy promotions, and recruit on campus, while student groups -- at least those without lawyers -- are limited to homemade signs and leaflets in tightly restricted areas. At a free speech forum last month, law professor Douglas Laycock offered a skeptical judgment of the regents' rules on free speech, saying they follow the totalitarian principle: "Everything is prohibited unless it is specifically allowed." The rules, said Laycock, "appear to have been written by people who understood that speech had to be permitted -- but they weren't happy about it."

The discussion may resume in September. JFA student chairman Jeremy Alder says the organization plans to bring its anti-abortion exhibit back to Austin this fall. "We want," said Alder, "to bring it to the Tower [South] Mall."…

The numbers are in from the Austin Police Dept., and they show that last year, the indexed crime rate in Austin -- crimes per 100,000 people -- fell a total of 1% to a 21-year low. Alarmingly, however, the murder rate in Austin increased last year by 33%. The APD report suggests no reason for the increase, but does show that the biggest increases were in Northwest Austin (eight murders in 2000 vs. four in 1999) and Southwest Austin (seven in 2000 vs. one in 1999). The other significant increase APD reported was in the number of sexual assaults, which rose 9% --from 660 in 1999 to 718 in 2000. More than half of those sexual assaults, 408 of the 718, were against victims ages 5 to 14. -- Contributors: Michael King, Amy Smith, Jordan Smith

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Ken Armbrister, Gary Bradley, Laurie Cromwell, Hays Consolidated ISD Education Foundation, Steven Collins, Dick Lavine, Milli Christner, SB 1812, Kirk Watson, Carole Keeton Rylander, Paul Robbins, Jackie Goodman, Raul Alvarez, Urban Heat Island Mitigation program, Rx.c

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