Quote of the Week
"Two hundred and thirty years ago, our forefathers fought a war to throw off the yoke of a European monarch and gain the freedom of self-determination. Texans long ago decided that the death penalty is a just and appropriate punishment for the most horrible crimes committed against our citizens. While we respect our friends in Europe, welcome their investment in our state, and appreciate their interest in our laws, Texans are doing just fine governing Texas."
– Robert Black for Gov. Rick Perry, in response to the European Union's appeal that Texas enact a moratorium on the death penalty
Can Toby Futrell be replaced? Hell, yeah. The hunt for a new city manager officially kicks off today, when City Council will go through the motions of listening to what you have to say on the matter. Sign up to speak ever-so-briefly on the search during a public hearing at 3pm in council chambers.
Joe Beal, CEO and general manager of the Lower Colorado River Authority, announced he'll leave his job in mid-January – not a moment too soon. Beal is credited with providing the water lines to all those new subdivisions eating up the once pristine Hill Country west of Austin. Nice job, Joe.
U.S. lawmakers are calling for an investigation into the 2006 shooting death of freelance journalist Brad Will, who was gunned down while videotaping a violent protest in the streets of Oaxaca, Mexico. Police opened fire on the crowd – and Will – in a chaotic scene captured in the final frames of Will's film. For the full story, see "The Death of Brad Will," Aug. 10.
Three years after the forced closure of an unlicensed assisted-living facility in South Austin, the manager has finally been successfully prosecuted by Attorney General Greg Abbott. In August 2004, the Department of Aging and Disability Services inspected Celebrate Life at Triple Oaks, located on Pack Saddle Pass. DADS' staff found four elderly residents in poor conditions, including one kept in a locked room with boarded-up windows. DADS moved the residents out and closed the facility, and in October 2004, they forwarded their files to Abbott. In its judgment, issued last Tuesday, Travis Co. District Court fined owner-operator Jeffery Duvall $72,000, plus attorneys' fees and court costs, and bound him from running a similar facility until he gets a license. "The Office of the Attorney General is committed to Texas seniors," said Abbott in a press release. "Texans can rest assured that we will aggressively crack down on caregivers who violate the law." DADS told Abbott, however, that, in the three years since the original investigation, Duvall was reported to be running other unlicensed facilities in Texas. – Richard Whittaker
How did developer Perry Lorenz happen to knock $1 million off the price of the property for the UT Elementary School? When UT found the available land in 2003, it was on a fast track to get the charter school open. Ed Sharpe, chair of the school's Management Board, said Lorenz owned the property. But the civic-minded developer, who serves on the city's Design Commission and Downtown Commission, was also excited by the school's mission to serve mostly low-income, minority students (selected by application and lottery from five Eastside ZIP codes). Lorenz worked out a complex deal with the UT real estate office, in which a balloon payment would come due after five years, and UT could pay fair market value – or the property reverted back to Lorenz. About a year and a half ago, UT decided it did want to build a permanent campus on the site, at 2200 E. Sixth, Sharpe said. "That's when the notion of encouraging Perry to be generous came readily to our minds," said Sharpe with a smile. Meanwhile, land values in East Austin had soared (helped upward by Lorenz projects like the neighboring Pedernales Lofts). Lorenz, who set the $1 million discount figure for the "bargain sale," says he was a pretty soft touch because he's been so impressed with the school. He also serves on the school's Development Council. At Progress Coffee recently, Lorenz was beaming like a proud father about the news that it had just received a rare "exemplary" rating from the Texas Education Agency. – Katherine Gregor
In other education news, the Austin Independent School District seems to have made almost everybody happy with its 2007-08 budget. The district has reduced its portion of local property taxes to $1.178 per $100 of assessed value, which is 32 cents less than last year. Yet, thanks to formulas devised at the Legislature, the district has been able to keep the extra money created by rising property values. The preliminary budget for this year is $762.9 million, up from last year's $604.4 million. Around $9 million more will go toward staffing, including an average 3.9% raise that brings the starting salary for teachers up to $40,240 a year. The district is also spending more money on programs that target English-language learners, middle schools, and campuses that have been rated unacceptable by the state or the feds. AISD board President Mark Williams said members have been spared making hard decisions this year, but he doesn't expect that to last. "We're not going to get any new money from the state in 2008-09, except what we get for student growth," he said. "But that doesn't cover our needs. Our new students tend to be English-language learners and from low socioeconomic backgrounds. We need more resources to give them the academic attention they deserve." As a result, Williams expects the district to dip into its fund balance in 2008-09. – Michael May
Travis Co. commissioners approved the preliminary plan for the controversial 1,500-home RGK Ranch subdivision on a 3-2 vote Tuesday. Neighbors off State Highway 71 past Oak Hill are feeling the distinct loss of Texas Hill Country, given the large number of large-scale subdivisions popping up in the neighborhood. RGK Ranch, along with subdivisions on either side of it, was approved before the county's interim water-quality ordinance was passed. After the vote, Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt, who joined Ron Davis in voting against the preliminary plan, expressed regret that the county hadn't moved to stop the subdivision sooner. And note the emphasis on the "preliminary." A buyer could choose to go with an entirely new land plan but would have to go through the planning process all over again. – Kimberly Reeves
In other county news, commissioners will spend almost $100,000 to clean up Graveyard Point after recent flooding on Lake Travis. During a Tuesday presentation at Commissioners Court, county staff talked about the need to pre-empt health hazards by removing debris. Some debris will be items such as household appliances that were damaged by the rising water; other debris will be typical items the lake "coughs up" after significant rain events. Simple measures will be to provide Dumpsters around the area and provide a hazardous-materials collection site. The more complicated effort will come in future weeks, when county officials will consider a separate motion to actually buy out three pieces of property in the area. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty warned that many of his constituents would not view the county buying out property kindly, given that people often know exactly what they're getting into when they move into Graveyard Point. – K.R.
The city has a new Austin Water Utility director; Greg Meszaros begins Sept. 24. While this key hire didn't garner the public attention surrounding the selection of a new police chief, fresh leadership at the water utility could be nearly as important to community goals such as environmental protection. City Manager Toby Futrell said Meszaros wanted to come to Austin because it's a green city that values quality of life. "He brought up the Austin Climate Protection Plan, and he said he was drawn to Austin because of its courage in taking issues like that head on," Futrell said. "He felt like he could do innovative things here." Meszaros has been the director of City Utilities and Public Works for the city of Fort Wayne, Ind., for 22 years. Meszaros led the process of creating a "Green City" initiative in Fort Wayne to improve air quality and reduce energy consumption. Programs included conversion to electric hybrid vehicles and to cleaner fuels – right in line with the ACPP goal to significantly reduce energy consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions at the water utility. – K.G.
When 16 dogs at the Austin Humane Society's outside play yard stumbled upon a rabid bat in May, the pooches were placed in quarantined isolation for 90 days. Last Friday, AHS medical director Dr. Katie Luke, along with Dr. Linda Czisny with the city of Austin Rabies Authority, gave the dogs a clean bill of health, making them available for adoption again. "It has been a very hard summer for us and all of the homeless dogs in the Austin area. Because of the quarantine, our adoption program has greatly suffered, said Frances Jonon, AHS executive director. "AHS typically finds homes for 75 to 90 dogs every month." During the quarantine, dog adoptions dropped by almost 40% because the adoption kennels had to be shut down to become a quarantine area for the exposed dogs. AHS has lowered its adoption fees for the "bat dogs." For more info, see www.austinhumanesociety.org, where you can view pictures of available dogs and cats, or call 646-7387 x226. – Daniel Mottola
The city is still looking to drum up additional nominations for the Austin Music Memorial, to be unveiled when the Long Center for the Performing Arts opens next year. Nominations will be accepted through 4pm on Aug. 31. Honorees must be dead for three years, have contributed to the Austin music scene, and have lived or worked in or near Austin. Ten honorees will be inducted next year. See www.cityofaustin.org/music for more. – K.R.
With June and July so cool this summer, we expected the round two Kill-a-Watt Challenge results to be dramatic, but we didn't expect that July's 850 participants would more than double the savings of June's 563. To recap: Austin Energy is comparing participants' electricity bills each month this summer to last summer, with prizes awarded to those who show the highest savings. Collectively, July's participants used 294,678 fewer kilowatt-hours than they did last year. According to AE, that amounts to $30,000 in electricity-bill savings and 165 tons of avoided carbon-dioxide emissions – 95 more than in June. With the final sign-up deadline a month away (Sept. 20), there's still time to get in on the watt-killing action. You might not reduce your energy use by 89.8% like winning homeowner Rainer Blunck or by 80.9% like winning renter Patricia Chawla, but you can save more money and help your neighbors, as well. The summer's top neighborhood will have a party thrown in its honor, after all, and the rest of you will have to sit at home alone with your incandescent lightbulbs thinking about what you've done. Congratulations to July's winning neighborhoods (Tech Ridge, with a 35.2% reduction, and West University, with 21,595 saved kilowatt-hours) and businesses (Texaco Brakermart, with a 39.6% reduction, and Texas Parks and Wildlife, which saved 41,000 kwh.) Visit austinchronicle.com/watt for tips on saving energy and details on winners and runners-up. – Nora Ankrum
Beyond City Limits
Unless the Board of Pardons and Paroles votes in favor of a sentence commutation, and unless Gov. Rick Perry then agrees – or, perhaps, issues a temporary stay – the execution of Kenneth Foster is set for Aug. 30. Foster was convicted and sentenced to die not for killing anyone (it is undisputed that he did not commit murder) but, rather, for failing to anticipate a murder. He's slated for execution for the 1996 San Antonio murder of Michael LaHood Jr.; the man directly responsible for LaHood's death, Maurecio Brown, was convicted of the crime and executed in 2006. At the time of the murder, Foster, then 19, was in the car Brown and two others were riding in, which was parked about 90 feet away from where Brown shot LaHood. Foster and the other two men in the car, Dwayne Dillard and Julius Steen, said they had no idea Brown would shoot anyone, nor was there any evidence to suggest that they did. Nonetheless, Foster was prosecuted and marked for death under the state's law of parties, which posits Foster "should have anticipated" Brown would kill LaHood. Foster's supporters – including his wife, daughter, and grandfather – converged on the Capitol and the Governor's Mansion on Aug. 20 in an attempt to rally Perry to halt the execution. Not surprisingly, they didn't get anywhere. – Jordan Smith
The changes to the Children's Health Insurance Program that passed in the last legislative session go into effect Sept. 1. Texas families who are enrolled in CHIP will no longer have to reapply for the program every six months; they will stay in the program a full year before having to enroll again. Another change is that most families will be able to enroll in the program immediately instead of waiting 90 days for coverage. The changes are part of an effort by the Texas Legislature to expand CHIP, which covers children from families with incomes too high to qualify for Medicare but too low to afford private insurance. During a 2003 budget crunch, the Legislature passed rules that cut the half-million or so children covered by the program by almost half; however, when news reports surfaced of sick children denied coverage, legislators moved last session to reverse some of those restrictions. – M.M.
Texas continues to lag behind the national average on American College Test scores, although students have made recent gains – from 20.3 last year up to 20.5 this year. (The national average was 21.1.) In Texas, where the Scholastic Aptitude Test dominates when it comes to college entrance exams, only 30% of all students take the ACT. Still, ACT statistics ranking Texas students on college readiness are grim. According to scores, only 19% of the students who take the test would be considered college-ready in English, math, science, and social studies. When it comes to African-American students, that number drops to 4%; for Latinos, it's only 7%. – K.R.
If Democrats can't heed their mandate to end the Iraq war, can they at least enact coherent domestic energy policies? We'll see. The U.S. House approved an energy bill earlier this month that includes many eco perks, though it lacks the tough fuel-economy boosts of its Senate counterpart and the sweeping climate-change reforms many Dems campaigned on. What it does have is an ambitious renewable-energy standard requiring investor-owned utilities to get 15% of their energy from green sources by 2020 (with the option of offering customers efficiency assistance), in addition to incentives for solar panel installation, prohibition of the 100-watt incandescent bulb by 2012, and earmarked funds to develop alternative fuels, emissions controls for coal plants, more efficient appliances, and more efficient government buildings. Related legislation would close the Hummer tax loophole that incentivizes big truck and sport utility vehicle purchases, call for a broad "carbon audit" of the Internal Revenue Service tax code, and nix nearly $16 billion in 2-year-old tax giveaways to the oil industry. Austin Rep. Lloyd Doggett helped get plug-in hybrid car incentives included and straightened out a bio-diesel tax incentive being exploited by big oil, among other contributions. The president has threatened veto, because, surprise, the bill doesn't do enough for domestic oil production. The House and Senate bills will be reconciled this fall. – D.M.
Another notable inclusion in the newly passed U.S. House energy bill is an incentive for bicycle commuting. The provision amends the IRS code to include bikes in the transportation fringe benefit. Based on a bill authored by Portland, Ore., Rep. Earl Blumenauer, the measure calls for a $20 monthly benefit for riding a bike to work. Blumenauer's website notes that when facilities such as bike parking or showers are readily accessible, individuals are 40% more likely to bike to work. And with more than 50% of the working population commuting five miles or less to work, bicycles offer the strongest potential for reducing single-occupancy vehicle trips. BikePortland.org has video of jackass North Carolina Republican Rep. Patrick McHenry ridiculing bike incentives on the House floor. Bike advocates have reportedly flooded his office with nasty calls. If the provision passes, perhaps the Statesman's toll road, err, transportation reporter Ben Wear – who this week bemoaned a proposed MoPac bike/pedestrian bridge over Barton Creek, designed to aid human-powered commuters residing south – can park his SUV for a while, take advantage of the incentive, and get some perspective from a bicyclist's standpoint during his commute from the south. – D.M