Naked City

News briefs from Austin, the state, and beyond

A photo of Timothy Cole, who died in prison after being wrongly convicted of sexual assault, stood watch last week over a unique court hearing that led to his posthumous exoneration. See Cole's Posthumous Exoneration Is First for Texas, p.24.
A photo of Timothy Cole, who died in prison after being wrongly convicted of sexual assault, stood watch last week over a unique court hearing that led to his posthumous exoneration. See "Cole's Posthumous Exoneration Is First for Texas," p.24. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

CITY LAYS OUT BELT-TIGHTENING PLAN Facing a $20 million General Fund shortfall, the city's financial department unveiled $20 million in proposed cuts at a special-called City Council meeting Feb. 11. A $15.6 million loss in anticipated sales-tax returns – traditionally overly relied upon in city budgets – plus slowdowns of $3 million in development revenue and $1.5 million in interest revenue created the deficit. To close the difference, budget officers proposed $11.5 million in departmental cuts and $8.6 million in cuts to corporate costs (city staff positions, salaries, and resources). Reductions were proposed in all departments except for fire and the municipal court. Police led with $3.7 million proposed in savings, including a $1 million reduction in overtime costs; the city support service fund, which funds the city bureaucracy, was slated for $2.1 million in cuts, and the city IT department for $1.9 million. Other proposals include cutting 9.5 hours a week at each branch library, eliminating the city's south day-labor site, and delaying market-based salary adjustments for employees, realizing $2.3 million in savings. A public meeting on the proposals is scheduled for Feb. 19 at City Hall, with Marc Ott presenting his final recommendations to council Feb. 26 – Wells Dunbar

THE SEARCH FOR A SUPERINTENDENT It's been almost exactly a year since Austin Independent School District Superintendent Pat Forgione announced his retirement, effective June 30, 2008. So how's the search for a replacement going? After the AISD board of trustees held a special executive session on Feb. 7, board Chair Mark Williams arrived at the regular Feb. 9 meeting with an announcement: There would be no announcement. He said the board is looking for an experienced candidate, but because even the rumor that a superintendent might be leaving an independent school district can send shock waves through the staff and the community, they want to make their short list as short as possible and ensure it contains only serious and well-vetted applicants. "I do expect we'll be able to announce our finalist – singular or plural – by the end of this month," Williams said. – Richard Whittaker

PARKS BOARD CALLS FOR REVIEW OF TRAMS At a special-called meeting Feb. 10, the Parks and Recreation Board considered the increasingly controversial issue of residential trams along the shore of Lake Austin. Recently, members of the newly formed Lake Austin Collective have been trying to bring greater attention to tram construction along the lake, citing concerns about erosion, environmental destruction, and the safety of the trams themselves (see "Lake Austin Shoreline Shortcuts Raise Alarm," Jan. 30). While it's estimated that there are between 30 and 40 existing trams, even a definite number is currently unavailable. Board members heard from Hal Engelhardt, whose company Austin Dock & Tram has built several of the lifts, as well as Bruce Aupperle, an engineer on several projects. Both had been told by city officials that they did not need a permit for tram construction, although Engelhardt said he had at one time conducted a $20,000 site plan at the behest of the city and was later told it wasn't needed. Attorney Marceline Lasater, a lake resident and volunteer on the Lower Colorado River Authority's regional council, said she believes trams are legally required to be permitted and that existing trams could be torn down. In the end, the board unanimously endorsed a resolution to call on the City Council and other relevant city commissions to clarify a confusing situation. – Jacob Cottingham

Just Too Busy to Vote

As the federal stimulus bill passed the U.S. Senate, Texas' senators were slammed for skipping the debate. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison missed several amendment votes on Feb. 6 because she was attending the Richardson Chamber of Commerce annual banquet in Dallas, while John Cornyn was in New York for a fundraiser during the Feb. 9 cloture vote. Both turned up on Feb. 10 to vote against final passage, but Hutchison has taken the brunt of the criticism for the earlier absences. Gov. Rick Perry mused about why she thought she could run for his job in 2010 when she wasn't doing her own job now, while Texas Demo­crat­ic Party Chair Boyd Richie called her "no better than Gov. Perry, who is playing the same kind of politics by threatening to reject funds to help Texans out of this recession." – Richard Whittaker

Time to Evaluate E-vote

Travis Co. Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir last week proposed to Travis Co. Commissioners Court the creation of a study group to evaluate the county's voting system and determine how well it is serving citizens and whether it needs to be upgraded or replaced. DeBeauvoir proposed that she appoint members to a 25-member group, but as In Fact Daily reported, 2nd Precinct Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt instead suggested also that citizens interested in serving contact their precinct commissioner. Such a group, if formed, would no doubt see some push and pull between DeBeauvoir, who oversaw the implementation of the Hart InterCivic eSlate electronic voting system earlier this decade, and anti-electronic voting activists such as VoteRescue, who distrust the system because it doesn't leave a paper trail and want to return to paper ballots. – Lee Nichols

Ayres on Texas Children

With Texas persistently receiving failing grades for education and health care, optimism about improvements in child-friendly policies is low. But while she was being praised for her lifelong commitment to kids' causes, Austin's Center for Child Protection founding board member Patricia Ayres told legislators and activists that reform remains possible. Ayres and her husband, Robert, were at the Four Seasons Hotel on Feb. 5 to receive the Texans Care for Children's Found­ers Award. In Austin, the Ayres family is probably best known for placing 6,300 acres of land upstream from the Barton Creek Habitat Preserve under conservation easements – but statewide, they are leading advocates for children's causes.

In 1975 Patricia Ayres became the state's first female commission chair when then-Gov. Dolph Briscoe (recipient of Texans Care for Children's 2009 Phil Strickland Child Advocate Award) appointed her to head the Texas Youth Council – now the Texas Youth Commission. With TYC again under the legislative microscope for another session, Ayres remains optimistic about reforms to protect and rehabilitate young offenders. "It was a very rough time when I went to the board as well," she said, "but we had committed members who were able to work with support from the state." As for pending proposals to unify TYC and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission, she said, "Better for them to be a part of juvenile probation than be connected to the adult system."

The award lunch was part of outreach by Texans Care for Children to get legislators to sign its Put Kids 1st pledge to place youth issues at the core of decisions. Calling children "voiceless, vulnerable, [and] voteless," Texans Care for Children Executive Director Eileen Garcia-Mat­thews hoped lawmakers would embrace a "cultural shift so they no longer have the out of saying, 'We're balancing this issue against that, or we don't have the funding for it, or this wasn't something that people cared about in my district.'"

While Ayres said "there's no excuse" for Texas' terrible track record on key issues such as child health insurance, "things can get better gradually. We used to be along the bottom at immunization. Now we're near the top, so I'm hopeful." – R.W.

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