Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Edited By Lee Nichols and Cheryl Smith, Fri., April 1, 2005
Quote of the Week"We want the quality of life for everybody not just certain pockets of people but everybody who lives in this great city of Austin." Council Member Danny Thomas. See below.
Headlines Austin Community College President Robert Aguero submitted his resignation shortly before press time on Wednesday. Aguero, ACC prez since July 1, 2004, has been on unpaid leave since Feb. 21. More on this next week.
On Thursday, the City Council heard an "African-American Quality of Life Scorecard" and voted to hold further public discussions on a loan proposal for the owners of the burned-out Midtown Live, as supporters rallied Monday at the site. See "Quality of Life for Blacks in Austin: Going Beyond Midtown."
Just past halftime of the 79th Lege, the Texas Senate took up its own public school finance plan reportedly more sensible than that just passed by the House while the House took up workmen's comp "reform," amidst swelling buzz that a public school voucher battle is around the corner. See "On the Lege."
The Austin ISD dipped its considerable toe in "character education" this week, part of the aftermath of a "safety and security" citizens' report performed last year. Under a curriculum scheduled to begin in earnest next fall, the district hopes to instill "touchstone character skills": caring, courage, fairness, honesty, integrity, etc., etc. No word if the Boy Scouts or the Catholic Church will serve as consultants.
In the wake of the Saturnalia known as SXSW, the NCAA's Austin basketball regional came and went, with the Michigan State Spartans surviving a titanic overtime battle with the Kentucky Wildcats to join Louisville, Illinois, and North Carolina in the Final Four this weekend. The folks up on Swedish Hill can pick up the beer cans and the soda cups and take a deep breath, while the Longhorns wait 'til next year.
Austin Stories Thursday, April 7 is the last day to register to vote in the upcoming municipal elections. Mail-in registrations must be postmarked no later than that date; to register in person, visit the Travis Co. Tax Office at 5501 Airport, or the satellite offices at 4011 McKinney Falls Parkway in southeast Travis Co. or 15822 Foothill Farms Loop in Pflugerville. Voter registration status may be checked at www.traviscountytax.org. Early voting runs April 20-May 3; election day is May 7. In Austin, the election will fill three city council seats, and voters will vote yea or nay on a strengthened anti-smoking ordinance. Call 854-9473 for more info. L.N.
A coalition of environmental groups has called on the City Council to look into coordinating a land swap with Stratus Properties Inc., in which the city would trade Block 21 land or Seaholm development rights for a chunk of land Stratus owns along Barton Creek. Stratus is one of the companies that has submitted a bid to redevelop the vacant downtown properties in line with high-density urban principles; the land the environmentalists want the city to acquire could connect the lower Barton Creek greenbelt with green space upstream. In their March 23 letter, the Austin Sierra Club, Save Barton Creek Association, and Save Our Springs Alliance said that "pulling off an exchange of downtown properties for Barton Creek land or conservation easements would be a bold move to make true 'smart growth' a reality." Rachel Proctor May
The Save Our Springs Alliance took a step forward in Federal District Court earlier this month in its efforts to rein in the environmental impacts of proposed SH 45 Southwest. The court ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct a study of how the road's construction may affect one species of endangered cave dwelling spider, unique to the Hill Country. The area in question is the Flint Ridge Cave near the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, southwest of town. The study is supposed to be finished by Dec. 8. "We're hoping it'll be in time to protect the species and the cave, which is a major [Edwards Aquifer] recharge feature," SOS' John Fritschie said. Many Hill Country caves like Flint Ridge have been bulldozed over during development, Fritschie said, adding that the extent of recharge capacity along SH 45's current planned path creates the potential for disaster if the road is built. Daniel Mottola
The Bush administration not known for its success with urban voters, and with a war and tax cuts to finance has proposed cutting in half the federal government's $5.5 billion Community Development Block Grant program, part of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The possible funding slash really sucks for Austin, which is cursed with a shortage of affordable housing, and received about $9 million in CDBG funds this year. CDBG dollars partially funded the city's new homeless shelter, among other innovative projects. The CDBG program is unique, said Paul Hilgers, director of Austin's Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office, in that it allows local governments to decide what their greatest needs are and how they will spend their federal dollars. The proposed CDBG slash, part of a larger plan to restructure HUD, attacks this flexible element of the grant program, Hilgers said. "Whether it's water and wastewater systems and fixing roads, or whether it's fixing homes in Austin so people can have a decent place to live, its not a decision I want the GAO [Government Accountability Office] making," he said. C.S.
The AISD Board of Trustees delayed a vote on whether to adopt a prevailing wage scale for work on AISD construction projects that includes funds for benefits. The district has recommended adopting a scale that will pay contractors market average wages, but doesn't factor in extra money for benefits. On Monday, skilled tradesmen once again packed the AISD board meeting to reiterate their message that adopting wages without benefits makes it hard for contractors that provide benefits to compete for construction projects against those that don't. They also highlighted the value that benefits provide, such as funding apprenticeship programs and keeping uninsured workers out of the emergency room. But the district says that the new wage scale, which was developed subsequent to finalizing the budget for the $519.5 million bond package voters passed last fall, will break the bank. (The projects funded by the last AISD bond package ran about $40 million over.) "It's not about what I want to do," said Superintendent Pat Forgione. "It's a philosophical question about what should we do, and an economical question of what can we do." The board will vote on the issue April 11. R.P.M.
Habitat Suites, an already eco-friendly Austin hotel, announced last week the completion of the largest hotel solar installation in the U.S. The six solar arrays, spanning nearly 1,500 square feet, will provide almost 25% of the 96-room hotel's annual energy, with the rest coming from Austin Energy's GreenChoice renewable energy program. Part of the project's $130,000 cost was funded through the AE Solar Rebate Program. "Committed to encouraging, promoting, and supporting ecological consciousness," the hotel uses nontoxic fertilizers and pesticides on its grounds, phosphate-free natural cleansers in its rooms, and recycled paper products. It also has an on-site recycling program, and offers vegetarian and vegan food. Habitat Suites is located at 500 E. Highland Mall Blvd. For more info see: www.habitatsuites.com. D.M.
Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein offered the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority's response to the audit presented by Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn at Wednesday's CTRMA meeting. Heiligenstein called some of the audit's charges distortions of actual information on the toll road. Among the points he made: About 300 of the 500 miles of the Central Texas tollways can be attributed to SH 130, and revised figures on toll rates show tolls at 15.5 cents per mile, rather than 64 cents. That makes the cost of the full US 183-A route a total of $1.80. CTRMA will make some changes in regards to the report, however, such as re-examining reimbursement policies, assuring that a CTRMA employee is dedicated to contract management, and requiring criminal background checks on all employees. Also, late last week, District Attorney Ronnie Earle cleared Chair Bob Tesch of any conflict-of-interest charges associated with Tesch's land holdings. Kimberly Reeves
Beyond City Limits State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn won't say if she'll challenge Gov. Rick Perry for his job in '06, but her newly assembled campaign team speaks volumes about her aspirations. The one tough grandma announced two new hires on Tuesday national GOP pollster John McLaughlin, who worked on Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign for California governor, and media consultant Alex Castellanos, who helped Strayhorn in her 2002 run. Strayhorn's hires follow another potential Perry rival, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who announced her campaign staff a few weeks ago; it includes campaign manager Terry Sullivan, who ran the most recent election campaign for U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, and media director Scott Howell, who also worked on the Bush-Cheney campaign. Perry's re-election staff includes campaign director Luis Saenz and a couple of guys he paid $2,100 to film Hutchison appearing on stage with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton at a Washington, D.C., event. Amy Smith
On March 29, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced a settlement agreement with Dallas-based Blockbuster Video that requires the company to disclose additional info about its new No Late Fee program. According to Abbott, the ad campaign for the new program failed to "clearly disclose" that customers who return a rental item more than seven days late would be charged the sale price of the item, or a restocking fee if the item was later returned. Further, Abbott alleged that the company failed to "sufficiently" alert customers that the NLF program was only offered at participating stores, leaving customers at some stores under the mistaken impression that they were renting items under the NLF program. "Advertisers may not use catchy slogans if those slogans are misleading," Abbott said. Under the settlement with Texas and 46 other states, Blockbuster agrees to include enhanced disclosures in all further advertising for the program, and to provide refunds or store credits to aggrieved customers. Customers seeking a refund must return a complaint form by April 28, or within seven days of discovering the late fee charges, Abbott said. For a refund form, go to www.oag.state.tx.us/newspubs/
releases/2005/032905bbrefund.pdf. Jordan Smith
Happenings Naked City received word of this rather late in the game, but the 2005 Annual General Meeting of Amnesty International USA will take place April 8-10 at the Downtown Hyatt. For full details, go to www.amnestyusa.org/events/agm.
In a related event, Joshua Rubenstein, northeast regional director of Amnesty International, will speak on "The Holocaust on German-Occupied Soviet Territory and the Response by Soviet Jewish Intellectuals" on Thursday, April 7, at 1pm, in the Eastwoods Room (room 2.102) of the Texas Union (24th and Guadalupe) on the UT campus. For more info, go to www.utexas.edu/cola/depts/creees.