Edited By Mike Clark-Madison, Fri., Sept. 5, 2003
Quote of the Week: "So, this cloud that you bring forward, I want to say that this cloud is almost mythical in nature. You would have to believe that Chief Watson, acting Chief Bruce Mills, and myself ignored police corruption, if you are to believe there is sufficient evidence to connect police officers to wrongdoing." -- Austin Police Chief Stan Knee, talking to the Chronicle in 2001 about the Mala Sangre case. An almost mythical cloud of you-know-what hit the fan this week, with the release of depositions in Detective Jeff White's whistle-blower case; see More Bad Blood.
State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, became the first of the Texas 11 to crack Tuesday, announcing that he would leave Albuquerque and "fight redistricting on the Senate floor" if and when (as expected) Gov. Rick Perry calls a third special session. Should be a quick fight. Whitmire returned to Houston Tuesday night; the Texas 10 said they would remain in New Mexico for the present. Austin Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos said the Democratic Caucus is "terribly disappointed" with Whitmire's decision, adding, "The fight is not over." See The Senate’s Happy Un-Holiday.
No City Council meeting today -- a breather before special-called meetings next Monday-Wednesday (Sept. 8-10) to approve the fiscal 2004 city budget. While most of the big issues were resolved last week (see City Budget Blues: Declare Victory (Until Next Year)? ), expect some last-minute fireworks. On Tuesday, the major bond houses -- Fitch, Moody's, and Standard and Poor's -- announced that Austin's bond rating would remain unchanged, a vote of confidence in City Hall.
Wal-Mart! Wal-Mart! Wal-Mart!That's right -- there are now three proposed Supercenters in South Austin, all drawing fire from neighbors and civic activists. See Wal-Mart is Everywhere!.
Make a new friend today. Go see a poll worker. Early voting for the Sept. 13 constitutional election continues this week, and we hear the election judges are mighty lonely. (And vote "No" on Proposition 12.) As of Wednesday, a whopping 4,141 people in Travis Co. had gone to the polls.
The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce gave Mayor Will Wynn some political cover last week as its board of directors voted to support City Manager Toby Futrell's proposed FY 2004 budget -- including its 7.2% property-tax increase -- as long as the city pursued further reductions (on top of the $38.2 million cut by Futrell) to avoid another tax hike next year. The Chamber also urged City Hall not to increase the General Fund transfer from Austin Energy and to consider spreading out the planned 27% increase in the commercial drainage fee over several years, and it was delighted with City Hall's plans to streamline development review. -- M.C.M.
Travis County did not fare as well in the Chamber's eyes: The board voted unanimously to oppose the county's planned tax hike, noting that Travis already has the highest urban-county tax rate in Texas. "There are better ways to balance the budget than raising taxes," said Chamber Chair Charles Barnett of Seton Healthcare Network. The chamber offered its assistance "in reviewing the budgets of other urban counties to identify cost savings and efficiencies that could be implemented here" and recommended "coordinating and consolidating services with the city of Austin and other jurisdictions." The Travis Co. Commissioners Court has identified some small potential cuts, along with fee increases and transfers from reserves, that would lower the tax rate a smidgen, but (so far) nothing near the $18 million-plus needed to scrub away the proposed tax hike. (The court's budget hawk, Precinct 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty -- who has discussed laying off more than 100 county employees to avert the tax increase -- told the Chamber it should go look at Capital Metro's budget.) The court was to wrap up its final budget vote Wednesday, as the Chronicle went to press -- M.C.M.
The Travis Co. budget got another break last week when commissioners and Fluor Daniel Company agreed to end their legal fight over the ill-starred Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center. The Downtown court-and-jail building ended up being three years late and $22 million over budget; the county and Fluor Daniel sued each other, with the California construction firm winning the first round (and a $2.8 million judgment), but that verdict was overturned earlier this year by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, citing Travis Co.'s "sovereign immunity" from lawsuits. Ending the litigation frees up $1.5 million in Travis Co. reserve funds, which County Judge Sam Biscoe says will be applied toward the FY 04 budget. -- M.C.M.
All heck broke loose when the Rev. Jim Rigby ordained an openly gay elder at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church a few months ago. Now, while Rigby's cloth is on the line with the higher-ups, Austinites are being called on to join a Soulforce training workshop as part of a citywide effort to support Rigby. The workshop, to be led by Dr. Mel White, will be 9am-noon Saturday at MCC Austin at Freedom Oaks, 8601 S. First. Meanwhile, Rigby and other like-minded souls thumbed their collective nose at the state's new Defense of Marriage Act, which took effect Monday, by holding a recommitment ceremony for same-sex couples on Wednesday. -- Amy Smith
In the same anti-DOMA spirit, the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas is launching a new voter-ID drive to help defeat a U.S. constitutional amendment that would ban any legal recognition of same-sex relationships. The first ID opportunity is, of course, the upcoming statewide election, Sept. 13. Those wishing to volunteer at the polls that day should contact field organizer Colin Cunliff, 474-5475 or firstname.lastname@example.org. -- A.S.
The City Council last week passed a resolution directing Austin Energy to include in its strategic plan (currently being revised) measures to "ensure Austin remains a national and international leader in the development and use of clean energy." These would include "the nation's leading renewable portfolio standard" -- that is, the amount of energy AE generates through solar, wind, and other green power -- as well as economic development strategies for clean-energy businesses and mitigation of carbon emissions from AE's fossil-fuel-fired plants. The resolution -- co-sponsored by Will Wynn, Brewster McCracken, and Danny Thomas -- is short on specifics but was nonetheless praised by clean-energy advocates. The utility expects to have its strategic plan -- with real numbers attached to the council's goals -- ready this fall. -- M.C.M.
The Downtown Austin Alliance won City Council backing last week for a long-desired study to determine a "retail development strategy" for the central business district. The city, which has been fretting and panicking for some time over Austin's declining share of local sales-tax revenue, will pony up $50,000 of the estimated $210,000 cost of the study, which will seek to identify barriers to thriving retail Downtown -- infrastructure, marketing issues, transportation, and so on -- and create an inventory of prime retail locations. The DAA, funded by a city-mandated assessment on Downtown property owners, is contributing $100,000 from its own reserves and has committed to find the remaining funds. "I applaud the DAA for putting its tax dollars where its mouth has been for years," said Mayor Will Wynn, a former chair of the alliance. -- M.C.M.
The city's nearly 10,000 employees will see their health insurance premiums rise nearly 10% in fiscal 2004, according to projections by the city Human Resources Department presented last week to the City Council. This hike is a lot less steep than the 27.3% increase in city insurance rates originally forecast for the upcoming year -- one of the largest "built-in cost drivers" City Manager Toby Futrell has decried as she tries to balance the city's books. But on top of the 9.9% premium increase, city employees will also face increasing copays and deductibles and may have to change doctors, as the city switches its PPO coverage to United Healthcare. The city's per capita health insurance costs are about average for local public employers -- higher than Austin ISD or LCRA, lower than the state, UT, or Travis Co. -- but they've increased more than 200% since 1990. -- M.C.M.
Beyond City Limits
Yet another "scorecard" has been released for the (regular) legislative session, this time from the Texas Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. Tracking 19 major votes in the House and seven in the Senate, TARAL rated 53 lawmakers as pro-choice (more than 75% pro-choice votes) and 113 as anti-choice (less than 20%) -- that leaves only 15 legislators in between -- and bemoaned that a "startling" 77 representatives and 19 senators scored 0%. Among the Travis Co. delegation, Sens. Gonzalo Barrientos and Jeff Wentworth both scored 100%. In the House, Travis Co. perfectly reflected TARAL's concerns about reproductive health being a "polarizing" issue: Democrats Dawnna Dukes, Elliott Naishtat, and Eddie Rodriguez scored 100%, while Republicans Todd Baxter, Jack Stick, and Terry Keel scored 0%. Among other locals, Rep. Dan Gattis, R-Georgetown, and Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan (whose district includes Williamson Co.), scored 0%, and Rep. Patrick Rose, D-Dripping Springs, voted TARAL's way 92% of the time. For the full scorecard, go to www.taral.org. -- Lee Nichols
On Friday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers granted a dredge-and-fill discharge permit to Alcoa Corp., the last regulatory step in the company's plan to open the new Three Oaks strip mine on 16,000 acres in Lee and Bastrop counties. On Aug. 20, the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality approved a wastewater-discharge permit over objections from Neighbors for Neighbors, the community group that has fought the proposed mine for several years and asked Alcoa to consider alternative fuels, like natural gas, to replace the lignite coal the company has used for more than 50 years at its Rockdale aluminum facility and that it currently mines from its Sandow mine in Lee and Milam counties. This week the company began clearing land for road-building, although it does not anticipate strip-mining at Three Oaks until 2005, when the Sandow mine is expected to play out. Neighbors for Neighbors, which may appeal the TCEQ decision, had asked that the agency either reject the permit or require more stringent water-quality monitoring for both wastewater and runoff from the coal ash Alcoa plans to use for road base. The TCEQ rejected both requests. The Alcoa Rockdale facility, the single largest grandfathered source of air pollution in Texas, recently agreed with the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce its generation of smog-producing pollution over the next 10 years. -- Michael King
David Barsamian, producer of the progressive Alternative Radio syndicated series, has added another speech to his Austin visit. If you missed last night's speech, he will discuss "Telling a Different Story in the Age of Fox and CNN" today (Thursday, Sept. 4), 3:30-5:30pm, at Parlin Hall, Room 301, on the UT campus. For more info, call 471-1990 or e-mail email@example.com.
Also tonight, the first of six debates between the Democratic presidential candidates will be televised nationally by PBS; here in Austin, tune in to KLRU (broadcast Channel 18, cable 9) at 7pm. The debate will be simulcast in English and Spanish, and also aired nationally by Univision on Saturday, Sept. 6. The debate will be held at the University of New Mexico campus in Albuquerque, hosted by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Folks who want a say in the regional planning process addressing the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer are invited to speak their minds at a public meeting at 7pm, Monday, Sept. 8, at Dripping Springs City Hall, 550 E. Hwy. 290. (For those coming from Austin, the city hall is tucked off of the south side of the road; if you pass the Sonic, you've gone too far.) The project is a joint effort of Hays Co. and Travis Co. officials of all stripes, led by Daryl Slusher and Hays Co. Judge Jim Powers. The planning efforts' core group has already met four times and is now opening the floor to one and all.