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State of the Statesman, Best House Buys, Tax Follies and more

Michael Barnes
mbarnes@statesman.com

MEDIA: How is the newspaper doing? Somebody asks me that every day. Usually, they mean: How is the business holding up in the digital media era? My reply — after explaining that I am not an official spokesman — given an industry in transition, great. We’re profitable. We’re blessed with a hot market and a smart parent company. We invested in new media early and effectively. Our press and packaging equipment are young and spinning constantly. Then I answer the question they didn’t ask: The quality of investigating, reporting and writing is often better than ever. Sure, we’ve lost some mammoth talents through attrition. And we miss them. But look at Sunday’s paper. I mean it. Devote an hour to it. Spend $2.50 for the print edition or 99 cents for a one-day dose of MyStatesman.com. You’re going to learn so much about your world. (Find some highlights below. There are dozens more stories like them today.)

TAXES: Large companies turn to courts for tax relief. Reported by Christian McDonald and Tony Plohetski in Sunday’s Statesman: “Over the past decade, Walgreens has engaged in a high-stakes game of dominoes across Texas to get its property taxes lowered for dozens of stores. Using a 15-year-old law — and the state civil court system — the national retailer has successfully obtained reductions in several of Texas’ largest counties, including Bexar, Dallas, Collin and Harris. Last year, another domino fell. With a long-running pending lawsuit against Travis County, the company brought those victories from other counties to Austin. Instead of taking the case to trial, county officials said they felt pressed into settling and cut Walgreens’ property tax valuations by $14.8 million, translating into an estimated $350,000 tax savings for the company. http://shar.es/IiJeN(Astounding.)

HOMES: Austin’s next hot housing areas. Reported by Lori Hawkins and Shonda Novak in Sunday’s Statesman: “Been house-hunting in Austin for a moderately priced home, not too far from downtown? Then you already know this: Houses in the city’s coveted central neighborhoods — Tarrytown, Clarksville, Hyde Park, Barton Hills, Zilker and Travis Heights — are out of reach for many of us, with prices often above $400,000 for even modest homes. That doesn’t mean buyers should head for the suburbs and abandon hope of finding something they can afford in the city limits. If you know where to look and are willing to take on a few challenges, real estate agents say, there are still neighborhoods where you can buy a home priced at or below the metro area’s median sales price — $225,000 through September — and without a long commute to downtown. These pockets vary in character and are in different stages of transition. They are becoming more desirable because they offer less expensive alternatives to the higher-priced Central Austin neighborhoods. http://shar.es/IilS8(Illuminating.)

HEALTH: Man’s death underscores chronic problems with Texas assisted living centers. Reported by Andrea Ball in Sunday’s Statesman: “A man dying of a brain hemorrhage at a state-run institution for people with disabilities had to wait more than 10 minutes for staffers to call an ambulance because one nurse didn’t know if she was allowed to dial 911 and two others argued over who had to help him, according to a state investigation. But that delay is only one in a series of failures surrounding the July death at the Austin State Supported Living Center, the report states. Investigators said employees didn’t know what drugs the man had been prescribed, didn’t know that he was vulnerable to head injuries and, consequently, allowed him to slap himself in the head and face for three hours — all of which officials say played a role in the fatal injury. The death is the latest in a pattern of fatalities and injuries over the past year at the living center, a taxpayer-funded institution that houses about 300 people with intellectual disabilities. http://shar.es/IiZ2N (Nobody reports it like Andrea.)

POLITICS: Panel begins revising City Council districts. Reported by Sarah Coppola in Sunday’s Statesman: “An Austin commission on Saturday began revising a draft map of 10 City Council districts, including the two districts in Austin’s core that had drawn the most criticism. The group worked for six hours Saturday, and didn’t finish or vote on a revised map. It will continue revising the draft map on Monday and possibly Wednesday and Saturday. “We made great progress today,” Chairwoman Magdalena Blanco said as Saturday’s meeting wrapped up. The 14-member commission is carrying out a plan that Austin voters approved last fall to change the City Council from seven members who each represent the whole city to 10 district representatives and a citywide mayor. Future City Council candidates will have to live in and campaign in the districts the commission draws. The first election of an 11-member council will be in November 2014. http://shar.es/IilJW(The changes are clearer online, where the map is in color.)