The Austin Chronicle

Naked City

July 25, 2008, News

• The 2008-09 proposed budget for the city of Austin was unveiled Wednesday morning, featuring a proposed tax rate of 40.28 cents. That's a small step down from the current rate of 40.34 cents but, due to rising property valuations, brings in more money – $209.1 million of the city's $620.7 million General Fund. An anticipated budget gap was closed with what city officials described as minimal service disruption; city employees' raises (a 2.5% pay-for-performance boost) will come in December, later than usual, while branch libraries may face possible one-day-a-week closures. City Council will examine the budget all through August, before voting on it in September. For more on the budget, see "Beside the Point." – Wells Dunbar

• Monday night's meeting of the city's Urban Renewal Agency board of commissioners did nothing to clarify the future of the Victory Grill. Board members did vote to approve changes, requested by the Austin Revitalization Authority, to a project in the 900 block of East 11th Street. But it could not pass a vote on whether to recommend ARA's changes to the 1100 block (also known as "Block 18," on which the Victory sits) to the city's Planning Commission. Urban Renewal Agency Chair Kevin Cole (husband of City Council Member Sheryl Cole) said, "This basically means our agency is silent on the issue, and that's unfortunate." Among the failed motions were attempts to reduce the office component of ARA's plans and to raise the percentage of affordable housing and retail. The management of the Victory Grill is concerned that the project could tower over the historic blues juke joint and possibly cut off side-street access to the club, and other neighbors also complain that ARA's plans are too intense. Rudy Williams of the Organization of Central East Austin Neighborhoods said his members worry about 11th Street becoming a "canyon" of four- and five-story buildings. The ARA proposal now moves on to the Planning Commission, probably in August. – Lee Nichols

• Are taxpayers benefiting optimally from the way Austin awards pro-growth tax incentives? This is one of the questions economist and UT professor Michael Oden is trying to answer in his report "Building a More Sustainable Economy: Economic Development Strategy and Public Incentives in Austin," recently released by Liveable City (and available at Prompted by questions about the wisdom of city incentives provided to high-end retailers at the Domain (which generated a campaign to put a Stop Domain Subsidies charter amendment on the upcoming November ballot), the 93-page study reports that Austin has actually been relatively reserved in its use of incentives. Between 1991 and 2006, the city signed just 19 tax incentive deals, compared to 208 in Dallas and 91 in Houston. The report also found that the city's five most recent firm-based (vs. project-based) incentive deals appear to be yielding net economic benefits for the city. Oden did find room for improvement: The complete costs of incentives to projects like the Domain, the Computer Sciences Corp., Mueller, and the Triangle, for instance, were indeterminable. Oden's study recommends, among other reforms, that the city report the total taxpayer costs of subsidies as well as the city's annual expenditures per project. – Katherine Gregor

• Artists and art fans are rallying to defend the Enchanted Forest, an outdoor gallery and performance space in South Austin, after the city yanked its permit. Since opening in 2004, the Forest has been operating under a temporary-use permit, but on July 18, owner Albert DeLoach announced that the city withdrew it. This change means there cannot be more than 49 people on the site at any one time, which effectively padlocks the doors for most events. The 3½-acre wood, located at the junction of Oltorf and South Lamar, has become a center for local artists, musicians, and other performers, and it won a Chronicle "Best of Austin" award for Best Stroll in the Woods in 2007. It has hosted a series of events, including the annual "Art Outside" exhibition, a haunted Halloween attraction, and even the wedding of local artist Randy Jewart and his wife, Monica Asencio (pictured above, in a gazebo created by artist Mary Quite Contrary), on June 28 this year. DeLoach has pledged to work with city officials to find ways to reopen the Forest as soon as possible and deal with any possible code violations. – Richard Whittaker

Bicyclist Vilhelm Hesness was hit and killed by an SUV last summer as he was riding lawfully on Manchaca Road near FM 1626 in South Austin. The driver who hit him, Richard Alan Lee, was under the influence of five prescription drugs at the time, including sedatives, an antidepressant, and a tranquilizer, according to toxicology reports. He was charged with intoxication manslaughter, a second-degree felony punishable by up to 20 years behind bars. Lee is scheduled for sentencing this Friday, but a plea agreement from Travis Co. prosecutors, which he's likely to accept, has Hesness' friends outraged. According to the county clerk's office, Lee will plead guilty and receive eight years' probation, 200 hours of community service, have his driver's license revoked for one year, and serve 60 days in county jail. "There's no end to the expletives I could expound," said Dale McCormick, a friend and cycling partner of Hesness. "He OD'd on five drugs and killed a man; it might as well have been murder, and he's going to do 60 days? This sends a horrible message. It just says what a cyclist's life is worth: not very much." (For background, see "The Unnecessary Death of Vilhelm Hesness," Nov. 2, 2007.) – Daniel Mottola

• A Schleicher Co. grand jury on Tuesday issued seven indictments on nine counts of sexual assault and bigamy against six members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – including imprisoned polygamist prophet Warren Jeffs. Jeffs has been in prison since he was convicted on charges of rape-as-accomplice in Utah; he's currently awaiting trial on similar charges in Arizona. – Jordan Smith

• At first blush, Villa Antonia, a local wedding and events venue, looks to be a fairy-tale spot in the Hill Country. However, the venue doesn't welcome fairies: Gays and lesbians are barred from holding commitment ceremonies on the grounds. That's what Wheatsville deli manager Dana Tomlin and her partner, Carol Campbell, learned recently when they were shopping around for a locale for their upcoming nuptials. The couple's wedding coordinator made an appointment with Villa Antonia, and the two women were given the full tour of the site, which rents for $1,500 to $5,000 for a half-day. But, according to the couple, when the words "commitment ceremony" were mentioned, the lovebirds were immediately rebuffed. As Tomlin recalls: "The representative said, 'I don't mean to offend anyone, but we don't do those out here.' I had to bite my tongue to keep from saying something rude." A Villa Antonia representative confirmed the venue's policy banning ceremonies for same-sex couples: "We do not book weddings which are not legal in the state of Texas." Tomlin says: "We were humiliated and angry. Sure, marriage for me is not legal, but I don't need 'legal' to tell me who to love and how. They should at least put that policy on their website upfront, so people know." – Abe Louise Young

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