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Edited By Michael King, August 10, 2001, News

Jail Fails -- Again

Travis Co. Sheriff Margo Frasier, along with Chief Deputy Dan Richards, Maj. David Balagia (who heads the county's corrections bureau), and County Judge Sam Biscoe appeared before the Texas Commission on Jail Standards Aug. 2 to address the commission's ongoing concerns about county jail staffing shortages and safety issues. The Travis County jail system -- the Travis Co. Jail, the new Central Booking facility, and the Travis Co. Corrections Complex in Del Valle -- failed its surprise commission inspection in May. The commission found that the facilities were all over capacity -- numerous prisoners were found sleeping on the floors -- that there was an insufficient number of correctional officers, that inmates were not being allowed regular visits, and that, amazingly, there was at least one unmanned control room.

Frasier told commissioners that the heart of TCSO's problems is a manpower shortage. "The staffing shortage is really the crux of the problem for, frankly, everything we've been cited for," she said, adding that the department has spent well over $1 million on overtime costs and even that hasn't helped the situation. "You begin to have a retention issue," she added, "with people working all this overtime."

The commissioners ruled that within 30 days TCSO and the county must submit a plan to fix the system's problems. In October, Frasier must return to the commission to deliver a progress report. Frasier seemed unsure that the county would be able to clean up its act quickly enough. "I don't know if I can bring us into compliance within 90 days," she said. "I want to be honest with you."

But Travis County has failed its yearly surprise inspection every year for the past four years. "A series of things have happened and they're all bad," said Terry Julian, the commission's executive director. "They've waited too long to really address it." Julian said that if the county fails to comply, it may be ordered to contract for jail space with a nearby county so that the proper ratio of officers to inmates can be maintained. "It sounds like the commissioners court is going to have to come up with some money at some point to handle the staffing issues," he said. "They've just got to provide a safe place for both the prisoners and the officers." -- Jordan Smith

At the Bar Again

In a move that should surprise no one, Save Our Springs Alliance attorney Bill Bunch sent letters on July 31 to City Manager Jesus Garza, developers Gary Bradley, James W. Meredith, and Larry L. Aiken, and engineer Ruben Lopez Jr. announcing that his organization intends to sue them.

Coming shortly after a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service report alleging that pollution levels in Barton Springs show that the Environmental Protection Agency isn't properly enforcing development regulations in the Barton Springs watershed ("Mercury, Cadmium, Arsenic, Grease …" Aug. 3), Bunch's letter charges the defendants with violating the federal Clean Water Act by discharging stormwater runoff from development sites at the Circle C West/Heilscher tract areas without the proper permits or a proper stormwater pollution prevention plan.

He also alleges that the development activities will violate the Endangered Species Act by causing an unlawful "taking" (read: killing) of the endangered Barton Springs Salamander, both during construction and for years afterward.

Bunch wrote that he included the city in SOS's possible targets because last year's "Bradley Agreement," which allowed Bradley some relief from SOS ordinance requirements in exchange for dropping litigation against the city, makes the city jointly responsible for the takings. -- Lee Nichols

Ding-Dong Dell?

Phil Brewer, the executive director of the Round Rock Chamber of Commerce for 11 years, has been the talk of the town ever since he abruptly quit his job late last month. Chamber honchos aren't commenting, but speculation on the street is that Brewer's recruitment efforts of late weren't aggressive enough to meet the demands of Mayor Robert Stluka. City leaders desperately want to diversify the local economy by going after big companies like Advanced Micro Devices, which is trolling for a place to build a new 300mm chip facility.

There's also the cold realization that Round Rock had grown too reliant on Dell Computers, whose economic presence has shrunk substantially since the days when it boasted a workforce of 22,000. Brewer was a key figure in wooing Dell to Round Rock and is credited with fattening the booming city's wallet over the past decade. Now, the big /little town to the north is trying to figure out how to maintain its foothold in these dubious economic times. -- Amy Smith

Still Dragging

Long-debated plans to clean up the Drag and make it more pedestrian-friendly are getting ready to move forward again. In 1995 the University Area Partners -- ostensibly the Drag businesses' neighborhood group -- began plans to fix up the sidewalks along the Drag section of Guadalupe to make it a more appealing thoroughfare. UAP initially got funding earmarked from Capital Metro's Build Greater Austin funds to the tune of about $1.8 million. "Those funds are available for the enhancement of the pedestrian aspects of the Drag, even if it's at the expense of vehicular traffic," said John Hodges of Cap Metro. But due to initial design problems and Cap Metro's focus on light rail, the project and the dough were shelved.

Last month, the city and the Cap Metro board approved an additional $2 million for the project, Hodges said. "The project got put on time-out for a number of reasons," he said. "But it's fired back up again and everyone's ready to go with it." Updated plans, he said, call for widening sidewalks, enhancing the pedestrian crossings, planting shade trees, and placing benches along the street. A new aspect would enhance the pedestrian corridor on 23rd Street, taking it deeper into the neighborhood and increasing the area's lighting and safety, said Matthew Kite of the city's public works department.

First the plans have to make it through a "constructability review," Kite said, something they have not passed so far. The city is beginning to review the plans now and should know whether they meet "constructability" within two to three weeks, Kite said.

If all goes well, a bid for the project would go out in October for work slated to begin next January and run through August, to be finished before the fall semester starts. However, cautions Hodges, that timeline may change once crews get working. "You always have surprises," he said. "You don't know where all the utilities are until you start digging." -- Jordan Smith

Roads! Roads! Roads!

That's the battle cry of the Real Estate Council of Austin and allied asphalt enthusiasts who seem to have convinced a Travis County citizens advisory committee to jack up a proposed county bond package from $80 million to about $250 million. Why? To fund, among other things, several proposed new and existing road projects, most in the Barton Springs watershed. The most controversial measure of the bunch would upgrade and expand Frate Barker Road to connect to the proposed SH 45 in Southwest Austin. The Frate Barker project would cross the recharge zone of the Edwards Aquifer and pass through city-owned land acquired for preservation.

There's another glaring aspect to this bond package: It offers nothing in the way of affordable housing or land preservation. But the deal isn't final yet. The bond advisory committee will meet at 6pm tonight (Thursday, Aug. 9) to finalize the package, and there will be time allotted for public comment. The meeting takes place at the Joe C. Thompson Center, at Red River and Dean Keeton on the UT campus. The package then goes to the county commissioners on Aug. 14, although a coalition of neighborhood and enviro reps are urging commissioners to postpone their vote on the package. Voters will have the final say in November. -- Amy Smith

Camp at CAMPO

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) will meet Monday at 6pm at the Joe C. Thompson Conference Center, Room 2.102. Among the agenda items: discussing the feasibility of creating a regional authority to oversee SH 130 construction; endorsement of CAMPO's transportation priorities through 2015; and setting a public hearing for amendments to the FY 2000-02 and FY 2002-04 Transportation Improvement Program.

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