Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Edited By Lee Nichols and Cheryl Smith, Fri., Aug. 5, 2005
Quote of the Week"The Kool-Aid's in there, but they're not drinking." Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, on Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst's failed, closed-door attempts to sway senators toward his position on SB 2.
Headlines The Legislature failed yet again to produce the education funding and tax-cut bills sought by the Republican leadership. See "On the Lege."
Rumors are afoot that former Austin Mayor Kirk Watson may challenge Gonzalo Barrientos for his state Senate seat, but Watson says he hasn't decided. Barrientos has had the District 14 seat for 20 years.
Mayor Will Wynn announced he wants to close the Green Water Treatment Plant in downtown Austin, which would free up several blocks of city property for redevelopment. See "Austin Stories."
Austin Police raided 40 locations around town and seized 706 illegal video gambling machines. See "Police Raid Convenience Stores, Gaming Rooms in Gambling Bust."
Friday, Aug. 5, is the deadline for negotiators to avert a strike by Capital Metro employees. If a strike happens, Cap Met officials say service will continue in limited form. See "Labor Woes at Cap Metro."
The Austin Fire Department has suspended hiring any new firefighters over concerns that its standard hiring tests could be discriminatory. See "Austin Stories."
Austin Stories Austin Rep. Lloyd Doggett announced last week that he's bringin' home the bacon to the tune of $7.5 million. The big bucks are coming from the recently passed federal transportation bill, with most of it designated for an expansive hike and bike trail system in Doggett's East Austin district. An avid cyclist himself, he has long struggled to secure funding for the trails. They'll run along Walnut Creek in East Austin and intersect with the proposed Lance Armstrong Bikeway, which proceeds west through downtown and ties into the Town Lake trail system's more than 30 miles of paths, said Austin PARD Planner Butch Smith. The trails also tie into Capital Metro's Rails With Trails project, initially designed to create about 10 miles of north-south hike and bike paths along its Commuter Rail line. Smith added that Doggett's funding will benefit trail networks near McKinney Falls State Park as well as along Onion and Williamson creeks in the Dove Springs neighborhood of Southeast Austin. "These trails will mean less cars on the road, more healthy children, less pollution, and more economic development," Doggett said. Dan Mottola
When is "affordable housing" not entirely affordable? When the housing development in question is called "Spring." On July 29, developers Robert Barnstone and Perry Lorenz (of the famed high-end Nokonah at Ninth and Lamar) and Larry Warshaw (of the decidedly more affordable Eastside Pedernales Lofts) announced their plans for a new 36-story, 200-plus-unit condo development at Third and Bowie called Spring. According to the development team, the project is unique because it will be built on a relatively small, 6,500-square-foot "floor plate" as opposed to the more common 16,000 to 20,000 square feet in order to keep costs down. "For the first time, living in downtown Austin will be a real option for teachers, firefighters, young professionals, and middle-income families not just the very wealthy," Lorenz said. Of course, one might argue that living downtown was entirely affordable for all of the aforementioned before high-end projects like the Nokonah began poking up all over town. Although Lorenz and company may call Spring "affordable," for the rest of us, whether the development will be the way for the pushed-out to get back in is a matter of debate: The so-called affordable units will cost "around" $250K, with some under $200K, Lorenz said. Back to the drawing board, boys. Jordan Smith
The Austin Fire Department has indefinitely suspended hiring new firefighters on the heels of controversy surrounding tests used to gauge recruits. A decision from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission stated that AFD's test of physical abilities could discriminate against women, while others, including the Austin Association of Professional Firefighters, say the written portion of the test is overly vague. The physical exam is used nationwide, and the EEOC's notice against it could have an impact equally as wide. On the written portion, "this current test had very subjective questioning We felt like there was a lot of subjectivity and we questioned the validity," AAPF President Mike Martinez told News 8 Austin. The decision to cease hiring is a move to protect AFD and the city from potential lawsuits. "We knew that we would be opening up a great deal of liability for the department, the city, and the taxpayers," Fire Chief Jim Evans told the online newsletter In Fact Daily. "We all felt it would not be prudent to proceed at this time." Wells Dunbar
The Texas Education Agency released its accountability figures for the year, showing Texas students faring worse on TAKS tests than the previous year. This was predictable, since the test had higher passing standards and more special education students enduring it than last year. In AISD, the big shock was that one of the six schools rated academically unacceptable was Anderson High, which enjoys the strong reputation typically expected of a school of its affluent demographic. The scores of its special education students doomed the entire school to the ratings basement, however. This week's announcement of the state accountability ratings will be followed next week by the federal ratings, which use the same data (TAKS scores) to rate schools based on different criteria. After that, schools will comb their data for mistakes that can improve their ratings (such as a single clerical mistake for a single student's results last year that, when corrected, moved LBJ High off the "needs improvement" list). Any ratings changes that come out of this appeals process will be announced in December or January, at which point everyone can expect to be thoroughly confused. Rachel Proctor May
Mayor Will Wynn called yesterday for closing the Thomas C. Green Water Treatment Plant, nestled along Town Lake in Downtown, and relocating facilities by June 2006. Closing Green would allow the city to develop the six acres of desirable downtown property on which the plant sits; the mayor wants to place a new central library on part of the acreage, and extend Nueces Street south to Cesar Chavez. A replacement water treatment plant is proposed for location further downstream, possibly south of Longhorn Dam, as it would "present fewer environmental and fiscal challenges," according to a press release from the mayor's office. "If we site a new facility downstream and preserve a 'straw' in Town Lake, Austin will continue to draw drinking water from Barton Creek, maintaining a very strong case for preservation of water quality in the Edwards Aquifer." Wynn's next step is presenting a package to City Council Aug. 18 to begin the site selection and permitting of the new facility, pending approval, while at the same time creating a timeline to demolish the current facility, and begin the Nueces extension. W.D.
Beyond City Limits With the filing of HR 3622, U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, wants to make volunteer militia groups like the Minutemen legit. Appearing on CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight, whose anchor is well-known for his anti-immigrant slant, Culberson talked about his new bill (which he had filed that day), saying "America will never win the War on Terror until we secure our borders my bill [will] allow honest, law-abiding American citizens who want to help win this war do so by volunteering in a lawful, government-sponsored militia force to deploy along our borders." (For a full transcript, see www.culberson.house.gov) The Texas Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, under its new leader Kenneth Buelter (former leader Bill Parmley resigned last week, citing that certain members were racists) recently said it won't patrol in the Rio Grande Valley as initially planned, but will instead focus on its base, Goliad, and Houston, where members are recruiting volunteers and plan to target day-labor sites. Meanwhile, the Shannon McGauley-led Texas Minutemen group is holding a "Border Watch Town Hall" meeting Aug. 6 in Horizon City outside of El Paso to recruit for their October mobilization. The group is considering heading down Laredo's way come April 2006. Diana Welch
Consumer and environmental advocacy group Public Citizen issued a report Tuesday titled "Industrial Upset Pollution: Who Pays the Price?" as the TCEQ began hearings on proposed "upset emissions" rule changes. At issue are toxic air pollutants released by Texas chemical plants and refineries in excess of permitted levels during certain maintenance or supposed emergency situations. Public Citizen is calling for stricter standards, saying the proposed changes would narrow existing loopholes but still exempt some offenders from monetary penalties. The report found that the TCEQ took financial disciplinary action in fewer than 1% of the more than 7,500 upset incidents reported during 2004 and that many facilities appear to regularly use upsets to sidestep state regulations, threatening the state's ability to meet federal clean air safety standards. One Texas facility, for example, released 10 times its yearly permitted emissions in one upset resulting in serious health implications for nearby residents. "Upset events are making Texas children sick and keeping them from going to school," said report author Beth O'Brien. The report (at www.citizen.org/texas) claims that other health effects found around frequent upset emitters include above average hospitalizations for decreased lung function, chronic pulmonary disease, asthma, and increased cancer deaths. D.M.
State lawmakers, health care advocates, and Medicaid clients gathered at the Capitol last week to celebrate Medicaid's 40th birthday. As Anne Dunkelberg of the Center for Public Policy Priorities noted, Medicaid provides health care access to 2.6 million Texans one out of every eight people including seniors, children, people with disabilities, and low-income families. Current and former clients stepped up to the podium and offered testimonials about their experiences with the program. "Medicaid helped me through a very tough period," said former client Tricia Forbes, who has a master's degree in social work. She's now privately insured, but during a time when she was self-employed and uninsured, she said, she faced a health care dilemma when she became pregnant unexpectedly. Fortunately, she was able to access Medicaid maternity coverage and got the prenatal and newborn health care services that mother and child needed. Seton CEO Charles J. Barnett drew on his work with the Chamber of Commerce to observe that a good health care system and its accompanying safety nets help create a strong economic climate. And Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, read a pro-Medicaid proclamation that she later read in the Senate. Amy Smith
Happenings The final public hearing of the Travis Co. Citizens' Bond Committee on bond recommendations, including a $60 million stand-alone proposition to preserve water quality and natural areas, takes place at 6:30pm today, Thursday, Aug. 4, at the Precinct 3 county office, 8656 W. Hwy. 71. For additional info, visit www.co.travis.tx.us.
Marking the 60th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, Austin Peace Action is sponsoring a remembrance ceremony Saturday evening, Aug. 6, 6:30-9pm in the Zilker Park Peace Grove. Hiroshima bombing survivor Dr. Satoru Konishi will share testimony of his experiences and speak on the moral imperative of nuclear disarmament. A candlelight procession to Town Lake follows. The following day, 1-3:30pm, Austin Area Interreligious Ministries will host a community forum, "Talking About Peace," at the Austin Presbyterian Seminary, 100 E. 27th. A panel will discuss pacifist and "just war" positions, including Jewish and Islamic statements. Group discussions of ways to work toward peace will follow. Konishi, who hopes to meet with members of the UT Board of Regents about their plans to operate the Los Alamos National Laboratory, will also speak at this second event. (Lunch available 12:30-1:15pm for $8; RSVP 459-0299.) See www.hiroshimaday.org.
The Austin Human Rights Commission will host a community forum at 6-8pm Thursday, Aug. 11, to discuss police use of Tasers. The forum will be an open discussion on Taser use, allowing attendees to share "experiences with other organizations and citizens of Austin," according to an HRC press release. Representatives from APD, the Office of the Police Monitor, and the Texas Civil Rights Project have been invited. One Texas Center, 505 Barton Springs Rd., room 325. To ask questions, or to provide testimony or comments, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. For more info, call 974-3250.