NIMBY infighting among long-feuding East Austin neighborhood interests threatens to delay or even stop creation of a much-needed outpatient drug counseling center. The Travis County probation department wants to open the center in a complex operated by Ebeneezer Baptist Church, a 125-year old black church which has been working toward building community service facilities in the area for more than two decades.
The area has been gentrifying, though, as a result of the recent in-city housing boom, and a handful of new residents, clustered in the Guadalupe Association for an Improve Neighborhood (GAIN), showed up at the eleventh hour last week to oppose the project. Said GAIN representative Buck McKinney, "the neighborhood has already voiced its opposition to this day treatment center and unless we see something in these materials that indicates otherwise, we are opposed" ... "emphatically opposed," he later added.
(See the video of last week's commissioners court hearing, as well as the hearing Nov. 13 where the project was discussed in greater detail.)
The center is part of new, specialized probation services funded this year by the state Legislature and discussed at inordinate length on this blog during the legislative session. East Austin needs this counseling center; the proposed location is ideal; the partnership with Ebeneezer Baptist Church makes a tremendous amount of sense. According to the Travis County CSCD (see their fact sheet on the topic, uploaded here, responding to questions from GAIN), there's a tremendous need for the services that would be provided:
Our waiting lists show that about 1000 individuals per year are required by the Courts to participate in treatment, but are they unable to get access because of a lack of treatment slots in Travis County or because of their inability to pay. This program will provide substance abuse counseling to approximately 1000 individuals on probation in the course of a year. In addition, we will provide short-term cognitive classes for about 500 people.GAIN's McKinney claimed at length they had no opportunity for input, but Precinct Two Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt easily established a timeline showing the neighborhood had plenty of opportunity to get involved; the problem was they only ever gave the input, "We're opposed," failing even to fill out a questionnaire the probation department sent out asking for their specific concerns about the project.
Commissioner Davis said during the previous week's Nov. 13 meeting that he'd personally notified GAIN as soon as he saw the item on the agenda, but they didn't show up. Even so McKinney contradicted Davis, claiming GAIN had never been informed. Eckhardt rightly pointed out that other neighborhood associations had gotten involved in the process, the commissioners court agendas were public, that much of the information GAIN claimed not to have was posted publicly on the website, and other individuals from different neighborhood groups had attended the previous week's meeting.
A representative from Ebeneezer Baptist Church said the strategy of GAIN has been to "stall, stall, stall and delay" and oppose all development of community services at that site. Frankly that's been my observation as well regarding nearly every important community development project in the area, which is not far from my own home.
To me, at that point the commissioner's court should have just voted. GAIN was informed just like everybody else, they simply opposed the project and there's no significant chance they'll change their mind. The request for delay was made in bad faith, and granted purely as a function of form, bending over backwards to project an aura of inclusiveness.
Such annoying, 11th hour NIMBYism ignores the best interests of the broader community because of over-hyped fears of crime, as though living within a rock's throw of I-35 they can behave like they live in some elite, gated community. I've lived about a mile or so east of the proposed site for nearly two decades, and frankly I'd much prefer to have the counseling center behind my house than the cheap-ass condos they just constructed there on the Featherlite tract.
I understand why a politician would curry favor with a neighborhood association in his district, but in this case it seems like Commissioner Ron Davis is cutting off his nose to spite his face. (In the interest of full disclosure, Ron is a former campaign client.)
By enabling opponents of the counseling center, he's going against the best interests of the overwhelming majority of his district's residents to mollify a uniquely gentrified pocket of East Austin. GAIN wants to pretend that an area with myriad urban problems can be transformed through pure denial into some sort of suburban enclave - next they'll want a gate. It can't happen, and those folks who thought it could should never have moved there.
Travis County's money from the state for this counseling center was approved for spending by TDCJ-CJAD seven weeks ago. The county already has employee applicants for the new slots waiting in limbo to whom they'd like to offer positions. Discussions at last week's meeting over when the state "required" the center to open were frustratingly circular. Commissioner Davis said he felt "handcuffed" by not knowing how much time the county had to open the facility, but Nagy said several times that the county was supposed to begin Oct. 10, and had promised the state to begin operations at that time. In the previous biennium when operating funds weren't used, she said, counties had to return a portion to the state, and she anticipated that's what would happen to unused funds the county was supposed to have been spending since Oct. 10.
In other words, the county, at this point, is losing treatment funds every day they wait. If it goes on much longer, Nagy said, the state has said it may divert the funds to counties with existing, active programs who can immediately use it.
If you live in Travis County, please contact members of the Commissioners Court to let them know you support the 11th Street counseling facility. It'd be a shame if after all the effort to secure new funding for probation services Travis County didn't get our share.
Travis County Commissioners need to step up, ignore GAIN's rank NIMBYism, end these harmful delays, and support the new counseling center next Tuesday. Any other decision would harm public safety, worsen jail overcrowding, add red ink to the criminal justice budget, and sacrifice the public interest in ways I think most Austinites don't support.