Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Quote of the Week"This was a deadly force encounter that, in my opinion, was avoidable. Not only ... did Schroeder use deadly force when it was not appropriate to do so, she needlessly jeopardized the life of another officer." Austin Police Chief Stan Knee, in a memo explaining the firing of Officer Julie Schroeder for killing drug-investigation suspect Daniel Rocha
At press time, the Texas Supreme Court delivered an eagerly anticipated but mixed ruling on school finance: It upheld state District Judge John Dietz's 2004 ruling that the state property tax cap is an unconstitutional statewide property tax, but disagreed with his opinions that school spending is both inadequate and inequitable. See "Beyond City Limits."
Austin Police Officer Julie Schroeder was fired Friday for the June 9 shooting of drug suspect Daniel Rocha. Austin's police union immediately blasted the decision and called for Chief Stan Knee's resignation. See "Schroeder Fired for Rocha Shooting."
Union negotiations: Austin's firefighters approved their first-ever collective-bargaining contract, making them the highest paid in the state; meanwhile, Capital Metro's bus drivers had no such success but are scheduled to resume negotiations on Monday. See "Naked City," below.
The City Council approved zoning changes that will allow the proposed Spring condominium tower to reach more than 350 feet into the sky, to the delight of downtown advocates and to the chagrin of some central city neighborhood activists. See "Beside the Point."
Mayor Will Wynn has suggested delaying the May bond vote to allow more work on structuring the bonds, especially as they might relate to the under-construction State Highway 130. See "Council Notes: Stack and Shuffle."
Along the same lines, Envision Central Texas hosted an SH 130 summit on Saturday, with more than 500 civic leaders and planners on hand to discuss development along the corridor. See "Beyond City Limits."
Stalled negotiations between Capital Metro contractor StarTran and Amalgamated Transit Union 1091 appear to be picking up again, with StarTran easing off of its threat to implement its final offer at will. Claiming an impasse in negotiations, StarTran was ready to implement its "last, best and final offer" Friday if the parties were unable to negotiate by then. The 800-plus member union says the proposal is a union-busting measure, as current employees keep their same salary plus a 3% raise, while new hires begin 17% below the current starting wage, taking nine years to reach the top-tier salary. The two sides will talk again Nov. 28. Wells Dunbar
In the early afternoon of Friday, Nov. 18, voting ended on the Austin firefighters union contract, the first ever created through collective bargaining on the part of the union with the city. Nearly three-fourths of union members voted, casting their ballots 91% in favor of the contract. The agreement seeks to bump the pay of all firefighters, but especially focuses on bringing the union's lowest-paid members up. All firefighters receive a 5.5% across-the-board raise in the last two years of the contract. The three-year contract makes Austin's firefighters the highest paid in Texas. Collective bargaining was only allowed after Austin voters approved a proposition last year permitting it; negotiations, however, were oftentimes less than cordial, as the city sought to rein in costs. With the contract now complete, many speculate that Austin Association of Professional Firefighters President Mike Martinez will focus his energies on running for the Place 2 council seat to be vacated by Raul Alvarez. W.D.
In response to a recent study on the effects of Austin's smoking ban, conducted by the state health department and UT researchers, which found that there are now drastically lower levels of harmful airborne pollutants such as carbon monoxide in local bars, Lovejoy's Tap Room & Brewery owner Chip Tait responded, "No shit! They spent $6,000 to figure that out?" Last week Tait publicized plans to shut down or sell his cherished downtown watering hole at 604 Neches. Surprisingly, however, he agreed with the study's other finding that the smoking ban has had a negligible effect on overall bar patronage; he says the ban has simply chased people to clubs with outdoor patios where smoking is allowed, which Lovejoy's does not have. Calling the smoking ban "the final nail in Lovejoy's coffin," Tait admitted business had been on a downturn prior to the ban, blaming an increasingly shady street on which he says criminal activity has become more common. Daniel Mottola
The city's Bond Election Advisory Committee met on Monday to discuss how they will ever whittle their roughly $850-million wish list of city improvement projects down to the target $600-million range. The discussion focused on two emotionally resonant issues: affordable housing and open space, with several members of the citizen committee urging that they cut deeper elsewhere in order to leave the proposed $75 million for affordable housing and roughly $130 million for parks and preserves intact. (That $130 million, if approved, would be divided among three proposed areas: $28 million for parks and parkland, $30 million for land along the State Highway 130 corridor, and a whopping $70 million for environmentally sensitive land over the Edwards Aquifer.) Despite rumblings from council (the loudest rumbler being Mayor Will Wynn) about delaying the May bond election (see "Council Notes," at right), the committee still plans to have a final recommendation to council by January. If you're way into bondage or would like to be, get more info at www.ci.austin.tx.us/budget/beac.htm. Rachel Proctor May and Kimberly Reeves
The Save Our Springs Alliance wonders "Who's enforcing the Endangered Species Act in the Barton Springs watershed, and what are the rules?" SOS sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after what SOS equates with the punting of its ESA enforcement responsibilities February by endorsing a newly created "optional" TCEQ program what SOS calls a "back room deal" and a "wink and nod to developers" in the Barton Creek Watershed. The new TCEQ rules which FWS signed off on as being sufficient to avoid "take" (meaning killing or harassment) of aquatic endangered species ultimately replace stricter water quality protection measures that were drafted by FWS in 2000 but rendered defunct the next year by a Texas Capital Area Builders Association lawsuit, according to SOS. Last week, FWS lawyers told SOS that their February action has "no legal effect." Robert Pine, supervisor of the FWS Ecological Services Field Office, said the FWS retains authority to enforce the Endangered Species Act and that what they gave the TCEQ was simply a nonbinding concurrence that take would be avoided under the TCEQ rules. "Because TCEQ has historically not enforced the upper limit of impervious cover," Pine said he understood SOS' objection to the agreement, but due to staffing constraints, he said, the FWS cannot do its job without such partnerships. D.M
For the second time in two weeks, Advanced Micro Devices has sought outside assistance in fending off an organized campaign against its plans to build a new campus in the Barton Springs Watershed. In the company's latest e-mail action alert, sent out last Wednesday, AMD's Allyson Peerman urged supporters to contact City Council members to voice their endorsement of the plan by 5pm the following day, Thursday. That's the day of the council's regular meetings, and curiously, its agenda for that day contained a cryptic item to be addressed in executive session: "legal issues concerning the Chapter 245 grandfathering process on development in the area subject to the Save Our Springs initiative." Popular opinion holds that the subject of AMD may have come up in that discussion, since the company's plans involve building on a grandfathered tract that would ordinarily be subject to the Save Our Springs ordinance. But the council technically has no vote on AMD's move, and city staff has already signed off on the controversial plat application filed by the landowner, Stratus Properties. So why would Peerman implore recipients of her e-mail to contact council members before 5pm Thursday? Explained AMD spokesman Travis Bullard: "It was important for the council to hear from AMD supporters before Thanksgiving simply because they are going to break for a couple of weeks, and we know that they are receiving misinformation from [the Save Our Springs Alliance] about AMD." The Alliance is part of a coalition of people and groups opposed to AMD's move to an area from which other major employers have steered clear, out of respect for the community's eco values and, more importantly from a PR perspective, to avoid negative campaigns like this one. Amy Smith
Nov. 30 is the deadline to suggest namesakes for the first five new AISD schools to be built under the 2004 bond program. (Three more are yet to come.) Nominees may be living or dead, but they must be "recognized by the general public" and serve as a "model of excellence." One nominee we like around here is former Gov. Ann Richards, who, back in the days before her fabulous coif was as white as the winter snows, used to teach social studies in South Austin. To nominate a candidate, go to www.austinisd.org/inside/2004bond and click "Naming New Schools." Rachel Proctor May
At press time, the Texas Supreme Court issued its long-awaited verdict on school finance. The 7-1 ruling found Texas' property-tax-dependent form of finance unconstitutional, but upheld three other aspects of the system, including its funding, as adequate. The ruling struck down the $1.50 ceiling on property tax, saying it effectively creates an unconstitutional statewide property tax since many cash-strapped districts have no choice but to levy the maximum rate. The court gave the Legislature a June 1 deadline to fix the finance system. The Supremes stopped short, however, of agreeing with the decision from Judge John Dietz, appealed by the state in bringing the case to the Supreme Court, that school funding is "woefully inadequate." "Public school financing does not yet violate the 'general diffusion of knowledge' mandate," the decision states, though it does acknowledge that the current school financing system has the potential to violate the mandate if left unchecked. Two other challenges to the finance system efficiency and sustainability were also deemed constitutional. On efficiency, the decision disagreed with Dietz's assessment of disparity between richer and poorer school districts, stating "efficiency requires only substantially equal access to revenue for facilities necessary for an adequate system." The sustainability argument said the possibility for improving on the finance system does not "render the present system unsuitable for adequately and efficiently providing a public education." The decision allows for the continuation of Texas' "Robin Hood" system of recapture, where richer districts (including Austin) share with poorer districts. The ruling is a mixed bag for both educators and the Republican lawmakers they wrestled with during three legislative sessions this year devoted to school finance. "Today's ruling is mostly a victory for public education. The Supreme Court has provided important guidance to the governor and the Legislature as they work to adequately and fairly fund public education," said Scott McCown, director of the pro-educator Center for Public Policy Priorities, in a press release. W.D.
Beyond City Limits
Unless state Sen. Ken Armbrister makes good on persistent rumors that he won't seek re-election next year, the Victoria Democrat could face Republican opposition in the 2006 general election. Armbrister last fended off a GOP hopeful in 2002. Still, it's a wonder why a GOP candidate would challenge the veteran lawmaker; he's frequently mistaken for a Republican in view of his penchant for Austin-bashing and his conservative voting record. Then again, Armbrister represents a Republican-heavy district, which includes a chunk of Fort Bend County, Tom DeLay's stomping grounds. Regardless of whether Armbrister runs for another term, Richmond businessman and rancher Gary Gates appears to be the early Republican favorite for the seat. According to his campaign Web site, Gates favors less government, fewer taxes, property appraisal caps, and individual liberty. Hard to say how he will differentiate himself from Armbrister if the two square off in 2006. -- A.S.
Iraq war protester Cindy Sheehan on Nov. 16 pleaded not guilty to a charge of demonstrating outside the White House without a permit. She and about 30 others are currently on trial before U.S. Magistrate Alan Kay for their Sept. 26 demonstration outside the First Residence, the last protest during a weekend of anti-war demonstrations. If convicted, the protesters face a fine of up to $500 each. Before the start of her trial, Sheehan told reporters she plans to travel back to Crawford, where her anti-war juggernaut began this summer, for a Thanksgiving weekend protest. Where Sheehan will stage her upcoming protest remains to be seen. After Sheehan's monthlong vigil near Bush's Crawford ranchette, which drew hundreds of like-minded protesters, McLennan Co. commissioners on Sept. 13 voted to restrict parking along 23 miles of roadway there. The commissioners said they were responding to "public safety" concerns, and that the new restrictions weren't an attack on free speech and assembly. Indeed, the new ordinance exempts a three-mile stretch of road that's actually closer to the ranchette than the area where Sheehan set up her first protest camp. Jordan Smith
"Hey, has anyone seen two vials of radioactive material anywhere?" asked the Texas Department of State Health Services last Thursday. The vials went missing during a shipment from Albuquerque to Kilgore earlier this month. According to DSHS, the vials, containing antimony-124, a radioactive material used in the oil and gas industry, were packed in protective lead shields labeled "radioactive" inside a World War II-era green metal ammunition box, which was being transported inside a radiation-labeled drum. The drum arrived in Kilgore, but the ammo box and vials were missing. DSHS officials are asking anyone who sees the green ammo box to contact local police or fire departments, or call DSHS at 458-7460. "Do not touch the box or the vials, and stay at least 10 feet away from them," Robert Free with the department's radiation control program warned. He said the items should not pose a threat to the public at large, but emphasized that sustained close exposure would be dangerous. The shipping route included stops in Abilene, Austin, Dallas, and Tyler. ProTechnics, the company shipping the vials, is offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to their recovery. D.M.
Business leaders will now go where lawmakers have failed. The Texas Tax Review Commission known in Capitol circles as the Sharp Commission began its work on Monday with a "getting to know you" session that included a discourse on lawmakers' many failures to come up with a viable solution to tax reform over the last 20 years, often due to political pressures from businesses who've avoided being taxed. Gov. Rick Perry, who appointed the panel to be led by former Comptroller John Sharp, gave a pep rally speech about the future of Texas depending on the panel, asking them to overhaul the tax system in a way that would be fair, broad-based, modern, understandable, and competitive. He also mentioned that the discussion would be bipartisan, which it generally has failed to be in recent Lege sessions. Texas currently ranks 33rd among all states in tax burden, but 13th when it comes to local tax burden, staff member James LeBas told the committee, adding that the gaps in the current system would only grow if left unaddressed. Kimberly Reeves
The cost of hurricanes Katrina and Rita to state and local governments could be up to $2.7 billion, Texas homeland security chief Steve McCraw told the Senate Finance Committee at a hearing in Beaumont last week. Texas, hailed for its generosity in the face of the devastation of Katrina, still faces plenty of unanswered questions, including how FEMA is going to handle the end of temporary assistance for housing, which is slated to run out Dec. 1 unless an extension is granted (see p.22). At the hearing, FEMA's Dennis Lee said the difficulty over housing stipends is the bumpy transition from temporary to permanent housing, which is funded under separate federal programs. On other fronts, the state's education agency has yet to see an education funding bill passed for Katrina, and damage from Rita could mean some East Texas school districts will have to make post-holiday job cuts if students fail to return to school. And, last but not least, the Health and Human Services Commission still does not know how many evacuees will be staying in Texas and how many may become permanently enrolled on the state's Medicaid and CHIP rolls. Too poor for insurance and too wealthy for Medicaid, many may end up being the responsibility of local counties, which often serve as the health care "safety net" for the uninsured. K.R.
No surprise here, but Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst announced Thursday that he'll run for re-election next year. The Houston millionaire and former state land commissioner is expected to coast to a second term without serious competition. He won the lieutenant governor's post in 2002 with 52% of the vote in a tough race against Democrat John Sharp, who now oversees a tax reform commission. Dewhurst was considered the Republican voice of reason during the Legislature's failed attempts to pass a school finance bill this year. -- A.S.
In hopes of ending what it called "the perverse competitive advantage currently enjoyed by violators" of state pollution laws, Texas Public Interest Research Group, along with 10 other groups, submitted comments to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in support of revisions to its penalty policy. They quote a state Auditor's Office finding that the TCEQ "does not consistently ensure that violators are held accountable." D.M.
The opening of the first four segments of State Highway 130, from Georgetown to South Austin, is less than two years away, and local leaders have yet to come up with a plan to make sure it doesn't end up, as one developer put it, "lined with cinder block buildings and used car lots with big American flags on the roof." Envision Central Texas, finally hitting its stride as a facilitator for regional planning, hosted an SH 130 summit with more than 500 civic leaders and local planners on Saturday. Former Mayor Kirk Watson, speaking on behalf of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, said the development of the SH 130 corridor, which will one day rival I-35 to its west, would be "the single greatest economic development opportunity in Central Texas in a lifetime." That will only work, however, if the "quick buck" mentality typical of development along freeways is turned into a shared vision of quality development and land-use controls, Watson said. Much of SH 130's 49-mile corridor falls outside the jurisdiction of the cities it will impact, and most of those towns that can dictate some type of land-use controls are too small to have much experience with zoning. Some at the conference, like Sandy Rae of Tejas Land Development, are pushing for a state-sanctioned management district along the corridor to dictate land-use controls, similar to one used in Fort Bend County. Envision Central Texas intends to continue to facilitate regional discussions on the corridor. Kimberly Reeves
The former co-owner of the tristate chain of Aladdin Beauty Schools, 73-year-old Charles Clinton White, was found dead in his home in Horseshoe Bay on Nov. 14, according to police. Police were sent out on a "check welfare" call that evening after White failed to show up for a private plane flight to Dallas. Police are investigating the death as a homicide and have reportedly identified a "person of interest" for questioning. Jordan Smith
In hopes of ending what it called "the perverse competitive advantage currently enjoyed by violators" of state pollution laws, Texas Public Interest Research Group, along with 10 other community, environmental, and religious groups, submitted comments to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in support of revisions to its penalty policy, part of the ongoing review of the agency's overall enforcement program. Referenced in the comments is a 2003 state Auditor's Office report on permitting and enforcement functions at the TCEQ, which said the commission "does not consistently ensure that violators are held accountable." The TexPIRG-led group argues that "the assessment of sufficiently high penalties against violators is one of the best and most effective tools we have as a state to deter lawbreakers, encourage compliance, and improve environmental quality. With few violations resulting in fines and with fines often assessed lower than the economic benefit derived by ignoring the law, polluters have incentives to break the law over and over again. Weak enforcement thus encourages pollution, deprives the state of critical revenue, and puts law-abiding businesses at a competitive disadvantage." D.M.