City Hall Hustle: It All Costs Real Money

Historic zoning, affordable housing, recycling, firefighting ... and laundry

Folding his clothes at the laundromat this weekend, the Hustle instinctively turned the handy establishment tube to Channel 6. The City Council meeting was being replayed, and a deluge of historic zoning requests had just begun, with City Planning Manager Jerry Rusthoven running through the case numbers like a meth-addled auctioneer. Great TV to match socks to, no doubt, but what did my fellow laundry-goers make of it?

As Michael King recounts (see "Point Austin"), two dozen historic zoning cases, passed on first reading Dec. 10, were approved on final readings at council's year-ender Dec. 17, at the not-inconsiderable annual cost of $380,000. Lost revenues, lack of application limits, and the proliferating practice of homeowners hiring for-profit zoning wonks to execute their applications concerned council, so when Rusthoven returned with the cases, he proffered some solutions: limiting the number of cases that can appear before the Historic Landmark Com­mis­sion, and implementing a financial cap on tax abatements each year and a cap on the number of cases from specific neighborhoods – a way to address neighborhood equity issues raised by Council Member Sheryl Cole. "We don't think these three ideas are mutually exclusive of each other," said Rusthoven, who should bring council some proposed guidelines in the new year.

Cole returned to the zoning spotlight a few cases later, as she and Chris Riley offered competing proposals over the South Shore planned unit development's affordable housing contributions, the last sticking point in the Riverside development's approval gauntlet. Cole recommended dividing the roughly $3 million allocated by developers Grayco Part­ners into thirds: one for on-site housing (a whopping 13 apartments deemed affordable for those making 60% of median family income); another for low-income, first-time homebuyers in the East Riverside/Oltorf Combining Dis­trict; and the final third for citywide housing measures, with an emphasis on housing for the elderly. Cole called her motion "a balancing act" between the impacted EROC neighborhood and the city at large. Riley offered a competing amendment that would split funds 50-50, half to on-site housing, the other half to EROC; with Riverside a cornerstone of city rail plans, he cited "the need to ensure that we have a significant amount of affordable housing near the transit stop." Riley's amendment failed on a tie, 3-3, possibly because the extra half-million would only garner seven more apartments on-site. Guess $3 million doesn't go as far as it used to. In the end, the council approved Cole's motion, and thus the PUD, on a 5-2 vote, with Mayor Lee Leffing­well and Council Member Laura Morrison dissenting, as they did on the first two rounds.

Another pricey item involved a choice among a bevy of proposed recycling contract extensions. Ultimately, council renewed in full the city contract with Greenstar North Amer­ica until March 2011, with Greenstar to recycle only half the city's wares from March to September. That was the option recommended by the Solid Waste Advisory Commission and the shortest of three proposed extensions, with the argument that it will be best in helping facilitate a switch to a local materials recovery facility; Greenstar currently transports our stuff to San Antonio for recycling. The question hung over the proceedings of how soon a local MRF could indeed be operational, with SWAC member J.D. Porter saying the city's current request for proposals might result in one being operational as early as September 2010. Assist­ant City Manager Robert Goode was less certain, calling it "a pretty big gamble" that a 4,000-ton-a-month MRF could be online within nine months, without even knowing for certain a given contractor would be the city's choice.

But perhaps the day's biggest gamble had come earlier in the meeting, when Bill Spelman was the lone member to vote against the Austin Fire Department's negotiated labor contract, already approved by the union. Breaking down his vote, Spelman began by noting Fire's pay raises, roughly $25 million over three years. "If somebody gave me $25 million from the taxpayers ... I might very well say no. I think the taxpayers might very well have more use for that $25 million than we do." But if forced to spend it, he said, he'd target city services, not salaries. And if forced to spend it on salaries, he said: "I'm not sure I would spend it on the Fire Department, not because the Fire Department isn't terrific, but because we've got 8,000 other employees who do not have the benefit of collective bargaining and who historically have not had the same increases in pay and benefits over the last 10 years as the police, the EMTs, and firefighters have had. I think it's a tremendously unfair situation for the other 8,000 employees."

Those weren't nearly all the issues before the dais, still tumbling around like sheets in a dryer as we head into the new year. It's a tired truism, to be sure, but local government affects our lives in ways far more direct and numerous than most debates at the federal level. If the quizzical stares at Channel 6 from my fellow launderers were any indication, however, it's difficult convincing the citizenry.

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City Council, historic zoning, South Shore PUD

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