Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Edited By Lee Nichols and Cheryl Smith, Fri., Aug. 12, 2005
Quote of the Week"I'm flattered at the possibility of being the Democratic pallbearer, I mean standard-bearer." Independent gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman, to the Austin American-Statesman, on attempts to woo him to run as a Democrat. He added that such a switch is unlikely.
Headlines The not-so-special session staggered onward through the fog, as House Speaker Tom Craddick suggested everybody just pack it in until the Supreme Court rules on school finance, and Lite Gov. David Dewhurst and the Senate tried to salvage a bill, some bill, any bill at all. See "On the Lege."
After some unexpected preliminary sniping, the City Council settled on a maximum tax rate at the nominal (current) rate meaning they won't go any higher than that as they begin to review the details of the proposed 2006 budget, with city service "add-backs" on everybody's mind. See "Council Notes."
Samsung Electronics, shopping for a location for a new $3.5 billion semiconductor plant, applied for state aid, school property tax waivers, and miscellaneous city and county concessions in a subsidy package that could approach $200 million, should the company choose Austin over several other competing cities.
Despite former Secretary of State Colin Powell's warning, "If you break it, you bought it," prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration appears to be suffering from buyer's remorse last week leaking a Pentagon proposal for a 20,000 to 30,000 troop reduction by next spring. Next fall's congressional elections are no doubt just a coincidence.
Austin Stories The results of a third toxicology test of urine and blood from 18-year-old Daniel Rocha confirm that he did have marijuana in his system the night he was shot and killed by APD Officer Julie Schroeder, Travis Co. District Attorney Ronnie Earle said late Wednesday. According to an August 9 press release, the Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences at Dallas conducted a "full screening" for drugs, confirming the second of two tox tests performed by the Travis Co. Medical Examiner's Office. The ME's office concluded in June that there were no drugs in Rocha's system, but a more discriminating retest last month performed by request from APD revealed that Rocha had a small amount of marijuana in his system on June 9, the night he was killed by Schroeder in Southeast Austin. Presumably, the latest toxicology results will be provided to the Travis Co. grand jury that is reviewing the shooting. (For more on this story, see "Rocha Case: New Drug Evidence Raises Questions About County Lab," July 22.) Jordan Smith
The project to end high school as we know it also known as AISD's high school redesign initiative is still rumbling along, with different schools and community stakeholders mulling ideas for different ways to reorganize the high school experience. One school has already been through the redesign wringer when Johnston High students return to class this week, they will do so as members not of one school, but of three separate academies. All other AISD high schools will in some way follow this lead, but first the district wants plenty of community input and ideas. Brush up on the issues with a new report by Austin Voices for Education and Youth that compiles the ideas that came out of the community redesign conversations they organized this summer, and then skippeth merrily and well-informed to the next set of conversations on Sept. 27 and 29. The report is available at www.austinvoices.org. Rachel Proctor May
Big changes are afoot for Austin's physical landscape there's zoning around State Highway 130 to consider, planning for transit-oriented development, rewriting the 10,000-page land code, and much, much more! What does such momentous change call for? Why, a new subcommittee, of course! Please join us in welcoming the newly formed Land Use and Transportation Subcommittee to the City Council's family of wonkitude. If you've been obsessing about which team the city will choose to rewrite the land code or how soon we can start annexing land around SH 130, then this is the subcommittee for you. The inaugural meeting will take place with great bustle and ado Monday, Aug. 15 at 3pm in the City Hall Boards and Commissions room. Be there and/or be square. R.P.M.
Expected to vote on a controversial contract detailing the 75-foot vertical expansion and 2015 closure of Browning-Ferris Industries' Sunset Farms landfill in Northeast Travis County, the Travis Co. Commissioners Court Tuesday instead delayed the decision by one week in response to residents' concerns over late revisions made by BFI to the contract last Friday. During the heated proceedings, Precinct 1 Commissioner Ron Davis, who flatly rejects expansions at either the BFI or the Waste Management Inc. site next door, said the disproportionately large percentage of regional waste facilities in Eastern Travis County, which is largely populated by minorities, amounts to "environmental racism." Austin Solid Waste Advisory Commission Chair Gerald Acuña echoed Davis' claim, urging the Commissioners Court to reconsider approving BFI's expansion. Both landfills have "outlived their usefulness," Acuna said. While the proposed contract reflects concessions by BFI meant to address neighbors' complaints, surrounding residents have repeatedly opposed any expansion request, citing odor, flooding, and litter problems. Brigid Shea of Liveable Cities presented the Court with the signatures of 15 area environmental organizations opposing the expansion. BFI Attorney Paul Gosselink said the expansion is necessary to "keep us from being forced out of business in this market." Daniel Mottola
Austin firefighters successfully squashed a city plan to reduce staffing at 10 stations last week, meaning the department will remain just 36 firefighters shy of meeting the national standard for four-person staffing per fire-fighting apparatus. According to Mike Martinez, president of the Austin Association of Professional Firefighters, the city's first budget for FY 2006 proposed removing one firefighter each from 10 stations across the city a suggestion that would've tanked more than a decade of staffing initiatives designed to propel the department toward the national staffing standard at each of the city's 40 fire stations. That was bad enough, said Martinez, but on Aug. 2 he was told that the staffing reduction was set to take effect on Aug. 7 and not "only in the next fiscal year." After a week of negotiations with acting Fire Chief Jim Evans and Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza, Martinez got word Friday morning (just five minutes before an AAPFF press conference during which Martinez planned to denounce the cuts) that City Manager Toby Futrell was prepared to draft a letter pledging to maintain current staffing levels. Requests for comment from the city were not returned as of press time. J.S.
A strike by the bus drivers and mechanics of Capital Metro has been averted for now due to a contract extension between Cap Met's largest contractor, StarTran, and the workers of Amalgamated Transit Union 1091, which has 800-plus members. Workers are demanding no rate cuts for new hires, benefits for retirees, no increases to their health care plans, and no changes to current drug-testing procedures. Parties will resume negotiations Aug. 15 with a mediator from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. The contract extension, the second such measure, expires Aug. 19, which will see either a resolution, another extension, or a strike by the union. Wells Dunbar
Reagan High School has lost another administrator. Marcus Nelson, who led the Eastside school over the summer after former principal John Gonzalez was put on administrative leave at the end of the school year, resigned late last week to take an assistant superintendent job in San Antonio. AISD announced Wednesday that it would plug the principal hole with "veteran" administrators Wanda Flowers and Glenn Nolley, the latter of whom served as Reagan's principal for five years in the 1990s. Superintendent Pat Forgione also said the district would announce an interim principal soon after Labor Day. R.P.M.
Austin fire officials have arrested and charged 25-year-old Ryan Neely-Otts with arson in connection with two Aug. 1 apartment complex fires in North Austin. Neely-Otts allegedly set the fires in the complex leasing offices after taking nearly $40,000 in rent monies from a night drop box at one complex. Agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives seized Neely-Otts' bank records, which showed several large deposits last week at a San Angelo bank, including one where Neely-Otts allegedly wrote his name over the name of the apartment complex on a money order, the Austin American-Statesman reports. Neely-Otts remains in custody at the Travis Co. Jail; bail has been set at $1 million for each charge. J.S.
Beyond City Limits Texas Civil Rights Project Director Jim Harrington announced Aug. 9 that TCRP is representing antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan in her quest to get some face-to-face time with President George W. Bush at his Crawford ranchette. Sheehan's son was killed while serving in the Army in Baghdad last year. Since then, Sheehan has turned against the war and is hoping to meet with Bush to implore him to pull U.S. troops out of the quagmire. (Sheehan met with Bush shortly after her son's death, but was dismayed by his attitude. He acted as if he were at a "party and behaved disrespectfully toward her by referring to her as 'Mom' throughout the meeting," she told The New York Times.) The TCRP is representing Sheehan and her "First Amendment right to try to see the president," Harrington said in a press release. He said the TCRP will also file a federal suit in an effort to secure Bush protesters' right to get within one mile of the ranchette, rather than within the five-mile perimeter currently maintained by law enforcement. "The press is allowed to come within one mile of the ranch," Harrington wrote. "So, too, should protesters." J.S.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, in a series of letters to the Health and Human Services Commission over the last year, has expressed reservations about the state's new program for managing health care enrollment and eligibility. The Texas Integrated Eligibility Redesign System is the cornerstone of the downsizing and integration plan for the state's health and human service agencies allowing Texas to cut up to 4,000 state workers by, for instance, shifting most of the work of enrolling needy families in 20 state agencies' entitlement programs to outsourced call centers. Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, alarmed by progress reports on the system, filed failed legislation last session to slow down the TIERS rollout until it was fully tested. The USDA appears to share those concerns and has chastised HHSC for failing to give the federal food stamps agency a "go/no-go plan," and for pre-approving a five-year, $840 million contract with call center vendor Accenture. In a July letter, USDA said federal funding was at risk if they didn't get more data. HHSC Executive Director Albert Hawkins has assured the USDA that all concerns will be addressed. The letters surfaced under a public information request from the Texas State Employees Union, which is monitoring TIERS' implementation. Kimberly Reeves
Happenings Minority and female business owners are encouraged to attend a "Prime Time Networking Session" sponsored by Capital Metro at their headquarters, 2910 E. Fifth, this Tuesday, Aug. 16. Aside from letting owners and entrepreneurs mingle, the event allows Disadvantaged Business Enterprises to meet potentially helpful contractors. To attend the event or learn more, contact Lamont Ross at 389-7434, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Registration for Austin Found, a citywide scavenger hunt benefit, has begun. For $50, teams composed of up to four people navigate the city on foot and on bus, unraveling clues directing them to iconic Austin landmarks. Proceeds go to Travis Heights Elementary School, and education charity the Austin Community Foundation. Event organizers are also looking for sponsors. See www.austinfound.info.