The Austin Chronicle

Council: Come as You Are

By Michael King and Amy Smith, August 8, 2014, News

I'm tempted to cite the most important City Council matter today, Aug. 7, as Agenda Item 111: "directing the City Manager to study the economic impact of the fashion industry in Austin and work with stakeholders and the Economic Develop­ment Department to develop recommendations for ways to support the local fashion industry" (co-sponsored by Mike Martinez and Laura Morrison). However, anyone who has even the slightest familiarity with the present writer will agree that he knows absolutely nothing of this subject – so I leave it to the Chronicle Style columnist, Amy Gentry, to deal with this matter elsewhere, as she handsomely will.

Ergo, lurking on this voluminous official posting – a staggering 178 items in all – is the rather bland direction at Item 17 that Council order a "general municipal election" to take place Nov. 4 and include selections for mayor and a Council of 10 districts, as well as a major transportation bond proposal (language to be determined) and a few neighboring jurisdictions on the side. Listed on consent, that item is unlikely to pass without some pontification on all sides. (See also "A Great Big Bundle of Rail and Roads.")

What else might Council get accomplished before dawn? Moving a cool $30 million from Austin Energy operations into reserves; a brace of the now-routine AE solar energy incentives, including $90,000 over 10 years for the new AISD Performing Arts Center at Mueller; authorizing acceptance of a $1 million federal grant to help underwrite a recycling/remanufacturing project near ABIA (see "City Plans to '[re]Manufacture' Landfill"). They might also approve a settlement (reportedly approaching $1.5 million or more) responding to last July's APD-officer shooting of Larry Eugene Jack­son Jr.; several items derived from the work of the Water Resource Planning Task Force (separately sponsored by CMs Kathie Tovo and Chris Riley, rivals for the incoming District 9 seat); two items addressing the needs of Central Ameri­can refugees and possible city ID cards for undocumented immigrants; and another that would address "distracted driving" (stash those phones!).

And nearly three dozen zoning cases, among them the Commodore Perry Estate at 41st & Red River, and a proposed 32-story Downtown hotel project (see "Another Hotel Checks In on Congress Avenue," Aug. 1). Also, a case involving the proposed Overlook office project at Spice­wood Springs has drawn strong opposition from neighbors, who cite a combination of concerns: increased traffic on the two-lane stretch of Spicewood Springs between MoPac and Loop 360, the proposed height of the office project (three stories), and environmental concerns – they say the site is home to critical environmental features, including canyon rim rock and wetlands. Residents are especially concerned that the project could produce the same "eyesore" as the nearby (currently under construction) Austin Board of Realtors' new HQ.

Those are just a few highlights in what threatens to be another marathon meeting, yet somewhat overshadowed by ongoing annual budget deliberations. The staff-proposed big numbers came in last week:

The All Funds budget (includes "enterprise" [income-generating] departments): $3.5 billion

• General Fund budget (operating/expense budget): $850.6 million (2014: $800 million)

• Civilian employees pay increase: 3.5% ($19.5 million)

• Police and firefighter pay increase: 1% ($3.4 million, pending firefighter contract)

Increase in city contribution to health insurance: 8% ($10.7 million)

• New positions (net): 151 (59 police officers; 38 civilian APD; 17 ABIA; 8 HHS [fee-funded])

• Property tax rate (proposed): 48.09 cents/$100 evaluation (2014: 50.27)

• "Typical" tax/fee increases (on a median-value home, $196,500): $12.13/month (3.9%)

There's already been Council pushback on that last number, largely aimed at the $4.67/month AE increase – and AE staff is reportedly scrambling to adjust downward. Beyond that, the campaign debate over a "homestead exemption" on property taxes has begun, with proponents saying it's necessary for "affordability," and opponents saying it's regressive, demanding, "Show us how you're going to pay for the $36 million it will cost."

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