Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Edited By Mike Clark-Madison, Fri., May 7, 2004
Quote of the Week: "I think for most of my members, the top priority is reducing property taxes." State Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, chair of the House Select Committee on Anti-Tax Pandering ... er, we mean Public School Finance.
Actually, it would seem that right now, the top priority of most members and most everyone else is tearing Grusendorf's education bill into little bloody shreds; the House managed to pass a ghost of the original proposal on Tuesday. See "Capitol Chronicle," at right, and on p.18.
Austin ISD's upcoming bond package will probably be larger than originally proposed, as the district's bond committee endorses parents' calls for new and better central-city facilities. See p.23.
It's soup! Envision Central Texas served up its official "vision" for the region this week. Now for the hard part: getting the children (well, local leaders) to eat it up. See p.23.
Perhaps figuring that he had been punished enough for The Alamo, local officials dropped the remaining charge against actor Jason Patric, busted last month in a post-party scuffle with Austin police.
The city Environmental Board is the next stop for Austin's proposed new "mitigation policy" to guide the City Council as it swings development deals for properties over the Edwards Aquifer otherwise governed by the city's strict Save Our Springs Ordinance. After three public forums (the last on Monday), the staff proposal which sets parameters by which developers could earn 10% increases over SOS impervious cover limits by ponying up for land to be conserved elsewhere has earned support from some environmental leaders who consider it a positive step over the current ad hoc sausage-making process. But other enviros, voicing long-held doubts over whether mitigation actually works to protect water quality, are calling on City Hall to hold the SOS line, and development interests who were looking for an actual amendment to SOS feel the proposal doesn't go nearly far enough. The City Council may actually get to vote on the policy before month's end. M.C.M.
The Austin/Travis Co. Community Health Center system has been awarded a grant of $559,692 per year to increase access to health care for the homeless. The grant will allow the centers to hire an additional physician, nurses, case managers, and other staff to serve homeless people at several locations. Most of the grant will pay for health care at the newly opened Austin Resource Center for the Homeless. The city-owned ARCH includes a clinic with four exam rooms and other rooms for substance abuse screening, counseling, and case management, said Patricia Young, CEO of the city-run Community Health Centers. Austin was one of 15 communities across the nation and the only in Texas to receive the grant. Amy Smith
Stratus Properties has won the first round of board approvals on a proposed amendment to its 2002 settlement agreement with the city of Austin. Compared to the contentiousness of the original deal, the latest proposal to rezone one of its tracts from multifamily to retail is thus far meeting little if any opposition. If Stratus is able to secure the change, its tract at Escarpment Boulevard and Slaughter Lane would be earmarked for a 93,000-square-foot HEB grocery, which would anchor a small shopping center. Several neighborhood associations appeared more willing to sign off on that plan than on the 400 residential units included for the tract in the 2002 deal. The New Villages at Western Oaks NA had put up the biggest fight against a multifamily development, but warmed to the idea of retail after several meetings with Stratus representatives. The Zoning and Platting Commission was expected to hear a briefing on the proposal this week as it continues through the city pipeline. A.S.
The hot item on today's (Thursday) City Council agenda is likely to be the Central Austin Combined Neighborhood Plan, which took up nearly eight hours of the Planning Commission's time last week. The plan calls for limiting density in the established residential neighborhoods north and east of the UT campus in exchange for dramatic increases in density within the boundaries of a proposed University Neighborhood Overlay in West Campus. Many individual property owners in the vast combined planning area have raised objections to the plan, but the most organized opposition has come from a newly formed West Campus Neighborhood Association, anchored primarily by property managers of existing UT-area apartments, who (among other things) question the wisdom of allowing downtown densities in a neighborhood whose infrastructure was not designed to support even the level of density West Campus has now. Neighbors supporting the plan have charged that the opposition is really more concerned with maintaining the sky-high rents brought about by West Campus' artificial housing shortage. The PC voted 8-0 to endorse the plan, and the UNO, at last week's meeting. M.C.M.
Other topics of interest on today's council agenda include a resolution directing staff to look at incentives for wind power manufacturing in Austin, and an appeal of the Planning Commission's unanimous denial last month of a conditional-use permit for a proposed transitional housing facility planned primarily to house newly released female prisoners on North Lamar. The PC decision is being appealed by the facility's agent, the ubiquitous Mike McHone, who's also heavily involved in the West Campus imbroglio; he should have a very long night. M.C.M.
Monday night, May 10, should be lively at the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, as CAMPO holds its public hearing on the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority's plans to add many miles of toll roads to CAMPO's official 25-year regional transportation plan. As is CAMPO's normal practice, the group's board made up of local and state elected officials will not actually vote on the CTRMA proposal until next month; if you can't attend to voice your views on toll roads, you can submit comments to CAMPO until May 28 at www.campotexas.org. Meanwhile, the CTRMA is waging a major-league PR campaign in support of its plan, which calls for new toll lanes on U.S. 183, Texas 71, Loop 360, and other local roadways; neighborhood meetings are being held all over town in upcoming weeks. Visit www.ctrma.org for a complete list. M.C.M.
The Austin Community College board of trustees voted Monday night to hire 26 new full-time faculty for the fall semester. The move comes amid a brouhaha in which the college's accreditation organization, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, has told ACC that many of its faculty lack proper credentials to instruct courses they have been teaching, sometimes for many years. However, the board's move also addresses a longstanding need for more full-time faculty at ACC, where about half the courses are taught by part-time adjuncts. "It's been a longstanding goal of ACC to have a high percentage of full-time, credentialed faculty who are completely involved with ACC," said faculty senate President Daniel Traverso. "And the fact that some faculty who need some remediation or to get some coursework done won't be teaching in the fall is an opportunity to bring in some highly qualified adjuncts." At the same time, Mark Goodrich, the president of ACC's teachers union, urged the board to ask SACS to allow faculty to keep teaching while they address holes in their credentials, whether those come from missing paperwork or missing coursework, and for ACC to provide tuition support for the faculty who may need it. Rachel Proctor May
Scott Ozmun's term as chair of the Travis Co. Democratic Party ended on May 3, as he did not stand for re-election. Incoming chair is Chris Elliot. Lee Nichols
Never underestimate the benefits of living in a town with a crusading, independent daily newspaper. In Saturday's editorial hole, the Austin American-Statesman bravely defended the citizens of Austin from something they repeatedly described as "forced collective bargaining" (that is, adopted by democratic vote) with the firefighters union complete with a graph showing that we pay our firefighters better than other Texas cities. About time to put an end to that nonsense. The editors' logic is fuzzy, but the gist of the argument appears to be garden-variety anti-unionism if the firefighters want it, voters shouldn't. But that was trivial beside the editors' adamantine courage a few days earlier, when they stepped up boldly and endorsed incumbent AISD board President Doyle Valdez against perennial candidate Jennifer Gale. Not exactly a tough call. But they didn't stop there, sneering at Gale as a "dilettante" ... "who cannot articulate a coherent platform any more than he (that's right, he) can provide a permanent address." Harrumph. That should put Jennifer in "his" place. But we can't help but wonder: How do they know? Michael King
Beyond City Limits
Calling proposed Health and Human Services Commission job cuts the consequence of "mindless bean-counting," state legislators, community activists, and state employees rallied at HHSC public hearings last week to condemn agency plans to eliminate 4,400 jobs and close 200 eligibility offices for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, food stamps, and Medicaid, beginning some time this year. The workers and offices would be replaced by centralized "call centers" through which clients would apply for assistance by phone. Though prompted by the Lege's attack on health and human services this spring, the HHSC plans are not binding unless the agency can show that the changes would indeed be more efficient and cost-effective. According to the Center for Public Policy Priorities, "The state's proposed timeline for making these changes is highly aggressive, allowing no time to test and evaluate the new system or its impact on clients." For more info, see the CPPP Web site, www.cppp.org. Written comments may be delivered to commission headquarters in Austin, through May 16 by mail or via e-mail to email@example.com. M.K.
Elected state comptroller and self-appointed theologian Carole Keeton Strayhorn says she is undeterred by the recent decision of the Texas Supreme Court, declining to overrule lower courts, that she was wrong to yank the religious tax exemption of the Ethical Society of Austin, a small group devoted to ethical and humanitarian traditions. Strayhorn insists that any religion designated worthy of the state's exemption must require its members to believe in "God, gods or a higher power." Despite being rejected at trial and appeal, Strayhorn says she will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court because as she sees it, "groups like the Ethical Society are not religiously based" and should they be victorious, "any wannabe cult who dresses up and parades down Sixth Street on Halloween will be applying for an exemption." Strayhorn didn't say she wants to abolish the religious exemption as unfair to secular groups and other taxpayers she just wants to be the one who gets to determine who's right with God. M.K.
Is a specific "lie, distortion, or dishonest statement" from a Bush administration official eating you up inside? If so, bottle it up no more! The Center for American Progress (which, among other things, sends out the e-mail log "The Daily Mislead") last week launched a Claim vs. Fact searchable database that archives Bush Gang claims and compares them to documented facts. So far the database has a mere 400 entries, so the CAP needs you and your submissions. To check out the database and find out how to add to it, check out daily.misleader.org. Jordan Smith
Do you drive a Chevy or Ford pickup truck? Maybe a Honda Accord? If so, according to Department of Public Safety statistics, you're driving one of the top three most stolen cars in Texas and the Travis Co. Sheriff's Office wants to help you keep it. On May 8, the TCSO will be offering free vehicle identification number etching a theft deterrent strategy that could also net you an insurance discount of up to 15% off of your premium from 10am-2pm in the Elgin HEB on Highway 290. For more info, call Kelly Hibbs with the Sheriff's Combined Auto Theft Task Force at 854-9735.
Fallujah, Prisoner Abuse, and the Future of the Occupation, a talk by Austin author and activist Rahul Mahajan, will be Monday, May 10, at 7pm at UT's Bass Lecture Hall (inside Sid Richardson Hall). Mahajan arrived in Iraq on April 5, the day U.S. forces blockaded Fallujah in preparation for the first wave of a major offensive. On his weblog, www.empirenotes.org, Mahajan has covered topics largely untouched by the mainstream media: the forced closure of Fallujah hospitals, U.S. sniper fire on ambulances, the question of foreign fighters, and candid interviews with a wide variety of Iraqis. His talk will address recent events, the current debate about Iraq, and what the future of the occupation may bring.
Stonewall Democrats will meet Tuesday, May 11, 7pm, at the offices of the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas, 602 W. Seventh. New officers will be voted to the executive board. Nonmembers welcome, but those wishing to vote must join for annual dues of $30. All dues-paying members must be approved by the executive board prior to office elections. For more info, call 266-7952 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Texas Democratic Party will celebrate the first anniversary of Ardmore and the 25th anniversary of the Killer Bees on Wednesday, May 12, 5-7pm, at Scholz's Biergarten, 1607 San Jacinto. Individual tickets are $35, with higher sponsorships ranging from $100 to $1,000. The party will honor the Killer D's with the First Democratic Backbone Award. (We're not sure if that means the first presenting of the award, or the first time Democrats have shown some backbone.) For more info, call 478-9800.