City Hall Hustle: So How was Your Vacation?

Council comes home to the budget, the Sanders debate, and plenty more

When it rains, it pours.

No, the Hustle isn't referring to any of the sudden summer deluges that threaten to turn his backyard into the 100-year floodplain at any moment, but the sudden rush of activity marking the week that City Council returns to the dais, following a month off.

Sure, council returns today (Thursday) to a dense 153-item agenda condensing several weeks' worth of meetings into one. But the real fun began yesterday, in a morning work session at which City Manager Marc Ott presented his preliminary budget for the upcoming fiscal year. (See "City Budget: Scrubbed and Squeaky Clean.") With a welcome rise in sales taxes and some budget-scrubbing, council can hold off from making some tough decisions this fiscal year.

That's not to say today's meeting will be a breeze, though. Aside from the sheer size of the agenda, contentious issues riddle it as well. Financewise, the yang to the budget's yin known as the $90 million transportation bond election is up for a 10:30am presentation to council, including both the city manager's recommendations for the November package and the recos from the Transportation Bond Citizen Task Force, which approved the package with some reservations, including grousing over the $14 million to $17 million price tag on the Boardwalk Trail at Lady Bird Lake (see "City Hall Hustle," July 16). In what looks like a nod to concerns about the cost of the package (in advance of a larger bond election proposed for 2012), a separate "Bond Election Financial Analysis briefing" was inserted as an agenda addendum.

Another omnibus winds its way back to council, Water Treatment Plant No. 4. Relatively small potatoes to other WTP4 expenditures, Item 23 allocates some $4 million to three firms for continued engineering work on the plant. However, it came out this week that one of the two proposed transmission lines from the plant to storage tanks – the Forest Ridge line, which runs through the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve – has been placed on hold while the utility redoubles its efforts on another route, the Jollyville transmission line, which has attracted complaints from neighbors regarding the size and scope of the project. (See "'Shoddy' and 'Rushed,'" July 9.) "The Forest Ridge line has been suspended for right now," says Austin Water public information specialist Jason Hill. "It's not a main line for us; it's a secondary line. We are making sure that all the areas that are a priority right now have the staffing and focus that's needed." Those areas include not only the Jollyville line but the plant's raw water pumping station. But as questions and costs continue to mount, one wonders whether the will to proceed with the plant will still hold.

Political will, good or ill, will certainly be on display during whatever council decides to do regarding the proposed settlement with the family of Nathaniel Sanders II. The city is considering settling the civil case brought by Sanders' family against former Austin Police Officer Leonardo Quintana, who shot and killed Sanders last year. Opposition to the $750,000 settlement (less than the money paid out in similar police shootings) isn't in short supply, with it being alternately coined a "surrender" by police union President Wayne Vincent or a continuation of the oblique fashion in which the city handled the case from the outset, as it was by Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez – the implication being that a public trial would result in some cathartic clarity. Cathartic like a scab being peeled off, in the Hustle's opinion, and a steep price to pay – both emotionally and financially – to avoid hurting the police union's feelings.

But so far, few council members and other public pontificators have noted the agreement is between the Sanders family and Quintana, as the city was dropped from the case a while back – so if council decides not to foot the bill, further legal wrangling may still be in order. If all that's not volatile enough, protests from the fledgling Austin Police Accountability Coalition are being called for Thursday, demanding subpoena power for the Office of the Police Monitor, public access to police misconduct files, and more meaningful reform that will never see the light of day until our current police contract – which, circling circuitously back to the budget, brought us the highest-paid police force in the state, if not the country – changes.

The rest of the agenda has gone to the dogs: An anti-puppy mill provision from Martinez banning the sale of dogs and cats in pet stores (a practice not currently happening in Austin) is up for adoption (Item 90), while another initiative from Laura Morrison lengthens the time citizens have to pick their pets up from the shelter to three business (nonweekend) days (Item 87). Additionally, the council-backed item requiring rest breaks at construction sites, an initiative of the Workers Defense Project, is ready to be inserted into city code (Item 47), and a $100,000 grant from city volunteerism org Cities of Service is ready to be accepted to create Austin's chief service officer position.

Surveying everything that's happening, I say we could use a little help.

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City Council, city budget, transportation bond, Water Treatment Plant No. 4, Nathaniel Sanders II, Workers Defense Project, Austin Police Accountability Coalition

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