Council: For the Birds
Council discusses bullhook ban, FFF Fest at Auditorium Shores, and civilian wage increases
City Council waded deep into budget review this week, with a couple of work sessions Monday and Wednesday alternating with the regular agendas at Tuesday's work session and today (see "Aug. 13: In the Zone Again," Aug. 14). Last week, they got their first extended look at the proposed budget; this week has featured departmental presentations now expected to extend into next week.
Meanwhile, regular business proceeds, much preoccupied last Thursday by elephant bullhooks (which can be used for abusive training) and Fun Fun Fun Fest. The bullhook ban – a growing national trend, to which Ringling Bros. Circus has effectively conceded via a 2018 phase-out of its elephant acts – was only mildly opposed on the dais. Council Member Ora Houston argued that the circus represents the only occasion when many of her constituents can see elephants, and Don Zimmerman insisted that animal abuse is already illegal and any training tool can be misused. In the end, the debate turned on whether the ban should be immediate, or take effect only after two scheduled circus appearances at the Erwin Center – the latter won the day, with the effective date Oct. 1, 2016, and only Zimmerman dissenting. (Later, he would post on Facebook that if bullhooks are banned, so should be "instruments that kill unborn humans.")
The discussion of Fun Fun Fun Fest also gobbled a couple of hours, although the presumed issue at hand – whether the November music festival should be allowed to expand its footprint at Vic Mathias/Auditorium Shores to include some of the redesigned off-leash area – had been informally settled, at least for this year, in negotiations with Parks and Recreation. Much of the discussion instead concerned the conflict with coincident events: Austin Opera's production of Aida, and the Settlement Home's annual garage/estate sale. Both organizations are uneasy about FFF Fest – traffic, parking, and sound bleed plagued the events last year – but it appears the three will be joined at the Riverside hip, at least for one more year, while the Parkland Events Task Force tries to square the circle.
There were also potential fireworks over the proposal – by Ellen Troxclair, Sheri Gallo, Zimmerman, and (somewhat surprisingly) Houston – to redraft the proposed 3% across-the-board wage increase for city employees as a "tiered" increase (a higher percentage for those at the bottom) – thereby cutting about $6 million out of the pay increase. It appeared the proposal would be voted down altogether, but instead it earned a postponement into the actual budget discussions. More on that next week.
Finally, Zimmerman railed for a while about the $400,000 purchase of 10 acres for the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, specifically a parcel in the Bull Creek area to complete that section of the plan. (The funding, administered through Austin Water, is self-generated by the BCP through the sale of "mitigation credits" to developers.) The Travis Central Appraisal District appraised the parcel at about one-fourth of that, and Zimmerman proposed lowering the amount to $100,000, while insisting that residents are paying for the land indirectly through higher land prices. William Conrad, the AW staffer patiently explaining the project, had apparently crossed swords with Zimmerman before (over land near the Canyon Creek MUD), and while other CMs lamented Conrad's nearing retirement, Zimmerman sniffed, "I appreciate the fact that you're retiring, too."
Zimmerman's motion failed, and he was the only "no" vote on the purchase itself – after Adler had quietly pointed out that "ad valorem tax value" and "market value" are seldom equivalent, and the former isn't even admissible in court in contested cases (a notion that might not be helpful for the city's pending TCAD challenge). In any case, Zimmerman's beef was really with the BCP itself, which he described as simply another wasteful government property grab "for birds," of lands that should instead be opened for development. "I view the BCP's appetite for land like the Bastrop wildfire," he said. "It never says, 'Enough.'"
Zimmerman doesn't often so clearly express his preference for parking lots over paradise. I doubt the folks out in the Bastrop pine forest would agree with him.