Tag Archives: Travis County Commissioners

Let’s Seal The Deal On Hamilton Pool Fees

By Bill Oakey – June 1, 2016

Last week I wrote a very tongue-in-cheek criticism of Travis County officials for their new method of charging fees to visit the Hamilton Pool Reserve. Behind the scenes, however, I have a very good working relationship with the Travis County Commissioners Court. I simply could not resist jumping into the pool fray on this blog. Now, the ball is in their Court, literally. I have reached out to Commissioner Gerald Daugherty’s office, since his Precinct 3 is where the park is located. My suggestions for reforming the fee structure and the method of collecting the fees, taking reservations, etc. will be considered and reviewed with the appropriate County Parks staff.

Now, here comes my favorite research question again…

How Do They Do This Kind of Thing In Other Counties and Other States?

Well, I found some answers. And this is how I think we can close the deal – signed, sealed and delivered. In the section below the picture, I will lay out the differences in rules and policies in other places, side by side with how it’s now being done during Hamilton Pool’s peak season here in Travis County.

The handshake after the deal is sealed

The handshake after the deal is sealed

Side By Side Comparison Of Rules and Procedures

The Travis County information is taken directly from this Travis County Parks Webpage.

Reservation Date Change Policy

Travis County: “Once you make your reservation, you cannot change the date.” (This means that if you are a tourist or are otherwise unable to go on a later date, then you forfeit the $10.00 registration fee).

Santa Barbara, California Parks (found here): “To change or modify a reservation, please complete and submit an online Reservation Change Form.

Reservation Refund Policy

Travis County: “Reservations are not refundable.”

Santa Barbara Parks (found here): “Reservations cancelled within 24 hours of making the reservation are eligible for a full refund.”

Reservation Payment Policy – Credit Cards vs. Cash or Check

Travis County: “You pay online for your reservation fee, and pay for your (separate) entrance fee with cash or local check when you arrive at the preserve.” (This means that if you don’t have a credit card because you are economically disadvantaged, then you cannot make a reservation, and therefore, you cannot come to the park).

Bexar County (San Antonio), Texas (found here under FAQ’s & Info): “Reservations made online through this system must be paid at the time of reservation with a major credit card. We accept Visa, Mastercard, American Express, and Discover. Reservations can be made in person with cash or check. If you would to make a reservation in person, please visit our office downtown.” (Travis County could go further, by offering this service both downtown and in other office locations).

Why Does Travis County Need Two Separate Fees for Hamilton Pool?

The dual reservation plus entrance fee policy has resulted in a dramatic skyward leap for the total cost, from $15 per vehicle to $26. Parks staff have told the Commissioners Court that there are “too many tiers” of entrance fees to allow them to charge each visitor a single up-front fee. Visitors on bicycles, pass holders and seniors with discounts all pay different entrance fees. But the last time I booked anything online, I found a wide range of options and I never questioned whether the 21st century computer system could handle the complexity.

It would seem to be far more efficient and certainly more convenient for the park visitors to make just one up-front payment to cover both the reservation and the entrance fee. And as I mentioned in my previous blog posting, the County is saving huge amounts of taxpayers’ money and resources during the peak season for Hamilton Pool. Much fewer Parks staff are needed without the overflow crowds and the parking madness that occurred before the new reservation system was adopted. So, logically, the total fees charged to the park users should be lower, rather than higher, than they were under the old system. Does the County Park system need more overall funding in the budget? If so, that is a separate issue altogether, and it should not create an undue burden for Hamilton Pool visitors.

A Few Words About Customer Service and a Friendly, Welcoming Approach

Visitors and citizens of Travis Country are the guests of the hosts who provide the public services. Our County officials should not let themselves be outdone by California or anyplace else when it comes to the Gold Standard of Excellence that they should strive to achieve. Policies should be as flexible, convenient and socioeconomically inclusive as possible. All of our parks should be accessible to anyone who wishes to come and enjoy them.

SL-3

Hamilton_Pool

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Posting:

  1. “Signed, Sealed And Delivered” – Rusty Draper, 1961
  2. “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” – Stevie Wonder, 1970
  3. “The Rain, The Park, And Other Things” – The Cowsills, 1967
  4. “All The Gold In California” – Larry Gatlin & the Gatlin Brothers Band, 1979
  5. “Coward Of The County” – Kenny Rogers, 1980
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Watch The Video – March Regional Affordability Meeting

By Bill Oakey – March 31, 2016

The Austin Regional Affordability Committee met Monday March 28th. You can watch the video here. The Committee includes officials from the City of Austin, Travis County, Central Health, AISD and others. Among those are City Council Members Delia Garza, Ann Kitchen and Ellen Troxclair, Commissioner Brigid Shea, and former State Representative and current Central Health Board Member, Sherri Greenberg.

A highlight of this month’s meeting was an affordability presentation by the local nonprofit, Liveable City. This organization sponsored a collaborative gathering of citizens who divided into groups for a day-long affordability forum. The Regional Committee on Monday will also be discussing their ongoing efforts to develop an Affordability Strategic Plan. In the video, you will also see the introduction of my Homeowner Retention Initiative, along with a presentation on the critical issues facing renters from the Austin Tenants’ Council.

We have a tremendous opportunity to join together and work towards real, tangible solutions to Austin affordability. The issues are diverse and complex, but I believe that Austin abounds with the creative and innovative spirit that can truly make a difference. Hopefully, the topical elements and the results of community input obtained at the Liveable City forum will help the Committee build their Strategic Plan.

Click here for more information on the Austin Regional Affordability Committee.

Travis County’s HUGE Wake-Up Call – So, Where Do We Go From Here?

By Bill Oakey – November 4, 2015

It is hard to overstate the historic significance of the failure of Travis County’s bond proposition for a new civil and family courthouse. In the 44 years that I have lived in Austin, I can’t think of another time when a major Travis County bond proposition failed. The voters here have consistently approved bonds for new infrastructure, whether it be for roads, buildings on land acquisition. But this time was different…Why?

That is the question that the Travis County Commissioners and their staff should be asking right now. Rather than pounding their fists and insisting that the voters did the wrong thing, they really need to take a few deep breaths and think about why the bond proposition failed. In the minds of the pro-bond fundraising groups there was only one side to the argument – We need a new courthouse, the old one is dilapidated. End of discussion.

The reality is that most Travis County residents do not disagree that we need a new courthouse and that the old one has long since outlived its useful life cycle. But that reality just happens to bump up against another one – affordability. This year’s round of sky-high tax appraisals hit everybody like a punch in the gut. When people are seriously scared about whether they will be able to afford to stay in their homes, their willingness to vote for tax increases becomes severely strained.

So, Where Does Travis County Go From Here?

There is no question that heads are rolling downtown at the County offices. As much as the County Commissioners would like to find a quick solution for the badly needed courthouse, there is a new State law that will probably slow them down. Apparently, a bill that was passed in last year’s Legislative session mandated that counties must wait 3 years after a  bond election to issue any new debt for a project that fails. County officials are working as we speak to determine exactly what their options are for pursuing any construction of a new courthouse.

The Big Missed Opportunity That Helped Lead to the Current Mess

The date was September 10, 2013. The Travis County Commissioners held a regular meeting on that date. Agenda Item # 18 addressed several items related to the proposed new courthouse. The 4th bullet speaks to my recommendation that the courthouse should be conceived as a “national model of cost effectiveness and efficiency.”

From the Commissioners Court Minutes for September 10, 2013

18. Consider and take appropriate action regarding the costs and engineering and architectural features of certain recently constructed civil and/or family courthouses.

Members of the Court heard from:
Belinda Powell, Capital Planning Coordinator, PBO
Roger El Khoury, Director, Facilities Management Department (FMD) Bill Oakey, Travis County resident

Clerk’s Note: Judge Biscoe circulated a memo requesting staff to ascertain certain information regarding recently built courthouses in other jurisdictions.

MOTION: Approve the information listed in Judge Biscoe’s backup memo plus five additional points:

o Delivery method;
o Soft costs and hard costs;
o Any cost reduction measures;
o Strive to achieve a national model of cost effectiveness and efficiency

and;
o Whether Furniture, Fixtures and Equipment (FF&E) are included in the
total cost.

The Motion Passed Unanimously. But What Happened Next?

The answer is simple and most unfortunate – Nothing!

In 2014 I was appointed to the Community Focus Committee for the proposed new courthouse. I was under the impression that this committee would function in an advisory capacity. However, we never performed any advisory role and we never interacted with the County Commissioners. Instead, we attended meetings where we were briefed by the staff and two sets of consultants on the progress and status of the courthouse planning efforts.

I brought up the fact that the County  Commissioners adopted my stipulation that the courthouse should become a “national model of cost effectiveness and efficiency” on at least two occasions. But no one ever brought forth any cost containment strategies. No discussion of alternative cost scenarios was ever presented to us. In fact, our committee was never even briefed on the estimated cost of the courthouse until the same week that it was scheduled to be presented to the Commissioners Court.

Shortly after the high cost of the proposed courthouse was announced, I submitted my resignation from the Focus Committee. It’s too late now, but if the taxpayers’ concerns about affordability had been taken seriously, perhaps the courthouse bond proponents would be celebrating a victory this week instead of wringing their hands in defeat.

The MoPac Lexus Lanes: A More Fair And Compassionate Alternative

By Bill Oakey – Revised Version, April 30, 2015

Longtime Austinites know only too well what a traffic nightmare MoPac has become. Even the name “MoPac” conveys gloomy and forboding thoughts. How many times have heard somebody say, “I sure dread getting onto MoPac today,” or “Can you think of any other way to get there besides MoPac?’

For years we have heard politicians and transportation officials talk about possible improvements to MoPac. Last year, we finally heard about a plan. But for nearly all of us, it was not a proposed plan up for discussion. Instead, it was a “Here’s how it’s going to be” plans. (I was tempted to say, “It’s our way or the highway.”)

The CTRMA, which is the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, has decided that it’s in all our best interests to “fix” MoPac by adding new toll lanes. It’s bad enough that our local leaders did not fight hard to keep MoPac free. After all, if the sections of MoPac and I-35 that run through Austin are not the highest priority for State funding, then tell me which other roads are.

Later this year, North MoPac will usher in new “express lanes” for the privileged few who can afford them. The tolls will be jockeyed up and down by a convoluted system designed to “manage” the traffic flow on the new lanes. The more traffic, the higher the tolls. This particular scheme has been adopted in other cities. But CTRMA’s version is a terrible idea for many reasons.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

This plan was dumped in our laps with little widespread public discussion. We haven’t been told how much the seesawing scale of tolls will cost those bold enough to try this brand of “traffic relief.” But we can be sure of one thing – the price will not be cheap. Especially in an increasingly unaffordable Austin.

Here is the picture that comes to mind with the new Lexus Lanes. One reason that MoPac has become so crowded is that thousands of folks have been priced out of their Central City homes into more affordable suburban neighborhoods. These are the good, hard working citizens who paid their taxes in Austin for 20 or 30 years, if not longer. What is their reward for helping to make Austin the desirable place that it is today? Banishment to the suburbs with high commuting and car maintenance costs. Not to mention the excruciating traffic woes.

The people who face the biggest financial burdens and deserve traffic relief the most are being told that their place on the “improved” MoPac will be at the back of the line. As they sluggishly crawl through gridlocked traffic day after the day, they will be treated to a most unwelcome sight. A zippidy-fast  parade of well-to-do drivers will be streaking by in their Lexuses, Teslas and fancy sports cars. These folks will not even notice that there are thousands of “regular people” inching past their hometown neighborhoods, en route to suburban exile. Instead of worrying about traffic, the Lexus set will be savoring their luxury shopping and dining experiences at the Domain or something similar.

So, What’s the Word On the Toll Cost and Other Big Questions?

Just chew on these words, taken directly from the MoPac Express website:

1. How high can the toll rate go?

There is no limit on the toll rate. Most of the time, the rate is expected to be $4.00 or less, but it could be much higher at times when traffic is especially heavy and demand to use the Express Lanes is high.”

(Note that at $4.00 per one-way trip, the monthly cost for 21 workdays would be $168.00. But it will only be that low when traffic is not “especially heavy.”)

2. Will carpools pay a toll to use the express lanes?

“Yes. Drivers who carpool will pay the same toll as regular users. However, because carpoolers are sharing a ride, they will have the option to split the cost, making trips more affordable.”

(In a review of several other cities with express lanes, every single one I found offered free access for carpoolers and even motorcycles).

3. Will disabled veterans, Purple Heart and Medal of Honor recipients be exempt from paying the tolls?

“The Mobility Authority Board and staff are grateful for the dedication and sacrifice of our military veterans. However, in order to ensure the Express Lanes remain free flowing, toll free travel will only be provided to buses and van pools operated by public transit agencies like Capital Metro and to vehicles specifically exempt from toll payment under state law.”

(OMG! Many other Texas toll roads offer free access to these classes of veterans. See this link).

4. The first item under the “Tolling” section of the FAQ’s on the MoPac Express website contains the most important sentence you will ever see. To ensure that it is never lost to history, I have preserved it as a screen shot:

“The goal of the higher toll rates is not to increase revenue but to manage traffic and maintain free flow speeds on the Express Lane.”

(Remember that quote. It can help us win the battle to reform the MoPac “improvements!”)

What Can We Do To Take Back MoPac and Preserve Austin Values?

I have submitted the following proposal to the Austin City Council and the Travis County Commissioners:

  1. Set up a lottery system for regular commuters to register online to be eligible to drive on the express lanes. The winners would pay an affordable fixed-rate toll. Their TxTag numbers would go into the computer system. Drawings could be held every 3 to 4 months.
  2. Determine how many driver slots should be allocated for each drawing. I believe that the majority of the available capacity should go to the commuters. This would need to be measured against the number of registered vanpools, buses and emergency vehicles.
  3. The appropriate number of leftover vehicle capacity could be subject to the variable tolls. There are people who may want to pay for a faster trip for any number of reasons, and some may not use MoPac at all on a regular basis.
  4. Set up a meeting with the CTRMA. Ask them to adopt this proposal on behalf of the people of Austin. The proposal is “out of the box,” for sure. But we will never reach affordability results without innovative solutions.
  5. Ask the CTRMA to deliver a set of potential scenarios for the slope of the curve on the variable tolls. What will the criteria be for determining the variable price points? Why not make the curve as affordable as possible until the traffic gets very close to the capacity limit?
  6. Provide full transparency to the public after the final decision is made on how the express lanes will operate. This is critical to ensure a successful public buy-in for the project.
  7. If there is already a contract in place that sllows the CTRMA to manage the lanes without any oversight or input from the City / County, then meet with them anyway, and urge them to compromise for the good of the community. A positive spirit of cooperation should be at the heart of Austin’s New Way Forward.

If you agree with this suggestion, please use these single email links to contact all members of the Austin City Council and the Travis County Commissioners Court.