Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Edited By Mike Clark-Madison, Fri., June 25, 2004
Quote of the Week: "With our recovering economy, we should have enough money to reverse some of the most harmful cuts made in the last legislative session, not make more." Dick Lavine of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, on the austere beginning of the state's budget process. See "Cuts Just Keep On Coming."
Naught but woes for Lowe's, as the big boxer and its City Hall dance partners is shot down (and shut down) in court. See "Woes for Lowe's.
The courthouse news wasn't much better for City Hall on the police beat, as the city lost what may be its last attempt to avoid a Mala Sangre trial, and APD got targeted by a civil-rights action filed on behalf of the NAACP (see "Will There Finally Be a Mala Sangre Trial?" and "NAACP Targets APD Funds").
Veronica Rivera handily won the last open spot on the Austin Community College board of trustees just in time to deal with the college's increasingly ugly accreditation crisis. See "Rivera Wins ACC Post".
The misbegotten West Cypress Hills project got shut down again by the Lower Colorado River Authority for its continuing failure to protect the once pristine waters of nearby Lick Creek. See "Bad Luck for Lick Creek."
One of the few kinda-sorta-progressive accomplishments of President Bush's Austin years Texas' 1997 patient protection law allowing lawsuits against HMOs (which became law without his signature) was rendered worthless this week by the U.S. Supreme Court. See "Supremes Spike Texas HMO Law".
The Austin Police Department on June 18 graduated 78 new officers, the largest class of cadets ever commissioned in the history of the department. The new officers will be assigned to patrol in one of the city's nine area commands. Jordan Smith
The Town Lake Animal Center is asking citizens for donations of chew toys, rawhide bones, and the like to help calm the center's canine guests during the annual Fourth of July fireworks show. As every dog owner knows, fireworks can scare the bejesus out of 'em, and the TLAC sits right under the booms and bangs that will be launched from Auditorium Shores, and the city has no money budgeted for canine stress relievers. Bring your donations to the TLAC at 1156 W. Cesar Chavez before July 4; for more info, contact the center at 972-4738. M.C.M.
Austin's back in the incentive business: At today's (Thursday) meeting the City Council will be asked to give staff the go-ahead to ink economic development deals with Samsung Austin Semiconductor and with Home Depot worth (together) more than $11 million. Samsung is asking the city to underwrite (through Austin Energy) expansion of its electric system that, the chip maker says, would lead to 240 new permanent jobs and a $1.6 million boost to AE revenues. Meanwhile, though Home Depot has already acquired property in Austin, it still (supposedly) hasn't decided where to put a new data center, with 500 permanent jobs, to handle back-office tasks for the sprawling Atlanta-based chain. The city is offering a 10-year rebate on increases in real property tax and on all personal property tax (a substantial giveback; the data center will contain an estimated $190 million worth of expensive tech equipment). The county and school district are also making favorable noises about a Home Depot tax deal. M.C.M.
Also on the council agenda: Fasten those seat belts! After eight years, the city is poised to really "adopt" the Mueller master plan by approving zoning of the old airport as a planned-unit development. To facilitate the long-sought transformation of Mueller into a model mixed-use urban village with residential, commercial, and open space each accounting for about one-third of the developable acreage the PUD would include 30 modifications to the regular city code. The Planning Commission only changed one thing when it reviewed the PUD removing "construction sales and service" (read: Lowe's or Home Depot) as a permitted use at Mueller's northwest corner, eyed by presumptive master-developer Catellus Austin as a regional retail center. A compromise position now circulating would restore the use, but limit such projects to 100,000 square feet. The next hurdle: settling on a strategy to realize the Mueller plan's ambitious targets for housing affordability. M.C.M.
Speaking of big-box retail, the city's study of the impact of such creatures on the local economy originally slated to be done in February is set to be presented by city consultant Jon Hockenyos at this week's council meeting. Aside from whatever goes down with Mueller, no big-box action is expected until the fall. M.C.M.
Austin police detectives have charged a suspect in connection with the March 16 robbery of a Bank of America branch on North I-35. Mario Alberto Sarabia is charged with a second-degree felony and is in custody in San Antonio on a $20,000 bond. According to APD, Sarabia is an associate of bank robber Ernest Rodriguez, who police say is connected to five other Austin bank robberies; he was arrested April 15. Police have solved 23 of 30 bank robberies this year. J.S.
Residents along the State Highway 71 corridor in western Travis Co. came into town Tuesday to voice opposition to a massive development proposal they only caught wind of last month, long after the wheels were greased for its approval. The Travis Co. Commissioners Court had no choice but to postpone action for one week on the project's preliminary plan. The Lazy 9 Ranch, to be named Sweetwater Ranch once it's developed, would include nearly 3,000 homes on 2,500 acres of what used to be genuine ranch land owned by the Davenport family. Neighbors and other opponents questioned the environmental logic of locating such a large-scale development in the fragile Hill Country, along a corridor already plagued by thick traffic and all-too-frequent fatalities. They also said they had made several attempts to meet with developer Bill Gunn, to no avail. So commissioners directed Gunn to meet with stakeholders, talk things over, and return next Tuesday. Amy Smith
Props to the Statesman's Steve Scheibal for breaking the news this week that Bonding & Technical Services Inc., a firm at the center of the ongoing probe into irregularities in the city's minority contracting program, made illegal campaign contributions to every member of the current Austin City Council and to several of their predecessors. Executives of BTS admit to having reimbursed employees and associates for contributions, thus violating both state law against corporate donations and the city's $100 limit on individual contributions; none of the council members apparently knew of the scheme. In a letter apologizing to the city and its citizens, BTS Austin head Sheri Aaron claimed the Nebraska-based company was simply ignorant of the law, since no such rules exist in its hometown of Omaha. The investigation continues. M.C.M.
A proposed Walgreens drugstore in South Austin won the unanimous approval of the Zoning and Platting Commission last week. The Chicago-based retailer had sought a zoning change to allow for a freestanding store at South Lamar and Bluebonnet. The matter now goes to the City Council, which rejected the proposal a year ago because of strong neighborhood opposition to a major chain transforming the sleepy corner into a 24-hour retail operation. Walgreens has since committed to make substantial upgrades to Bluebonnet Street. More importantly, Walgreens representatives say they will build a new home for Maria's Taco X-Press, which leases the land where the drug store intends to build. A.S.
No funz for BUNZ: The board of Schlotzsky's, battered by months of financial turmoil for the troubled Austin-based fast-food chain, finally succumbed and fired longtime CEO John Wooley and his right-hand man/brother Jeff. The new CEO is former Continental Airlines exec David Coats; the board is now led by UT business professor Gary Cadenhead and former state Comptroller John Sharp. No future plans announced yet for the Wooleys, fixtures of Austin's business and cultural highlife for decades, both of whom for now remain on the board. M.C.M.
Beyond City Limits
Oh, what a ... little feeling: The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas poured buckets of cold water on the Toyota miracle this week, claiming that the automaker's new San Antonio plant a landmark of the "Rick-overy" that Gov. Perry claims as his major accomplishment will create about a third as many jobs as boosters (and the state) had previously asserted. The report expects that, when it opens in 2006, most new jobs will be at the plant itself, noting that despite expectations that suppliers will flock to the area Toyota is relying more heavily on parts made in Mexico, among other places. Between the city, Bexar Co., and the state, the automaker received $133 million in incentives (less, it claims, that it was offered by other potential sites). M.C.M.
The Texas Health and Human Services Commission began sending out 70,000 "pay now" letters to families benefiting from the Children's Health Insurance Program last week, enforcing a new law that raised premiums this year from $15 a year to $15 to $25 a month. Low-income families have begun falling behind on the payments, and the letter informs the families that unless they become current, they will be dropped from CHIP effective Sept. 1. The federally subsidized program (roughly $3 for every dollar of state funding) covers some 100,000 children in the affected families over and above the 140,000 who have lost coverage since the Legislature added new restrictions last spring. Rep. John Davis, R-Houston, called the new premiums a "heck of a bargain." Houston Mayor Bill White said that in order to avoid greater burdens on hospital emergency rooms, the city would explore paying premiums for the up to 20,000 Houston-area children in danger of losing coverage. M.K.
At last week's convention (see "Capitol Chronicle," left) the Texas Democratic Party adopted a medical marijuana resolution, which includes support for legislation that would remove criminal penalties for patients and their suppliers, and calls for research and "controlled investigational trials" of marijuana's "therapeutic efficacy." According to a press release from Texans for Medical Marijuana, the Dems' platform adopted a similar plank under calls for a Patient's Bill of Rights, calling for the unfettered ability of doctors and patients to consult on "all effective treatment options." TMM board member and practicing oncologist Dr. Richard Evans was surprised: "As a lifelong Republican I think it's ironic that the Democrats are carrying the banner of limited government," he said. J.S.
The Texas Democratic Party has joined the many organizations that allow people to contribute to them through credit card spending. Via Juniper Bank, the TDP rolled out the Texas Democratic Party MasterCard at its state convention on Thursday. Users of the card earn points for every dollar spent, and the bank contributes $1 to the party for every 100 points accrued. (It's strictly a business deal for Juniper Bank, which is nonpartisan; other nonprofits also use this fundraising strategy through various banks.) For more info, call the party at 478-9800 or go to www.txdemocrats.org. Lee Nichols
The Mobilizing America's Youth March Across America is coming through Austin on Friday, June 25, and will sponsor a voter "inspiration" rally at 7pm at Plaza Saltillo. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman will give introductions on behalf of the city and open the evening to speakers who will aim to motivate the 18-to-25 crowd to register and vote. There will be free nonalcoholic beverages and music by DJ O following the speeches. For more info, check out www.mobilize.org.
Chronicle Music Award winner John Pointer plays at a house concert benefit for John Kerry and the Travis Co. Democratic Party, Sunday, June 27, 5:30-8:30pm. Hors d'oeuvres and drinks. $100 ticket; sponsorships, $250 per couple; directions provided with RSVP to 442-3414 or email@example.com.
At a public forum next Tuesday on state revenues and public school funding, state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, will speak on state economic and demographic trends, and the possibilities presented by a state income tax. A panel of local leaders will discuss state revenue options and their implications for local education, business, and community development. Sponsored by Texas Impact, Austin Area Interreligious Ministries, Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas, the Baptist Christian Life Commission, and the Austin District of the United Methodist Church. First United Methodist Church Family Life Center, 1300 Lavaca. Tuesday, June 29, 7-8:30pm. For more info: Texas Impact, 472-3903 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Austin ISD trustees
will hold a public hearing on the proposed budget for the 2004-05 school year, Thursday (today), 7pm, in the board auditorium of the Carruth Administration Center, 1111 West Sixth Street. Citizens may sign up to speak in the auditorium beginning at 6pm.