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City commission recommends

Tuesday, July 18, 2000 by

Adding third ambulance service

EMS staff opposed Southerncross application

The Urban Transportation Commission voted Monday night to recommend that the City Council award a franchise to Southerncross Ambulance, Inc. for non-emergency medical transportation within the City of Austin. The city’s Emergency Medical Services (EMS) staff had recommended against granting the franchise.

Currently, American Medical Response (AMR) and Guardian Services, Inc. have franchise agreements that allow them to transport nursing home, hospital and other non-emergency patients within the city. Southerncross, based in New Braunfels, serves the Austin metropolitan area but cannot transport patients within the city limits.

The vote was 6-2, with Commissioners Michelle Brinkman and Scheleen Johnson voting “no.” Voting in favor of the recommendation were Commissioners Carl Tepper, Patrick Goetz, Tommy Eden, Michael Dahmus, Dana Lockler and Chair Jay Wyatt.

Richard Herrington,deputy director/chief of staff for EMS, said his staff recommended against approving Southerncross’ application because a third franchisee in the market could have a negative impact on existing service standards. According to a memo from Herrington, “An operational evaluation conducted by Austin EMS staff found that Southerncross meets all of the operational requirements of the franchise ordinance.” However, staff worried that bringing in a third company might mean that the other two companies would have to cut costs, resulting in lower quality service to the public using those companies, mainly nursing home patients.

Herrington said EMS, which inspects and supervises franchisees, has received fewer than six complaints about AMR and Guardian within the last year. However, a recent survey showed 92 percent of those polled said they would like additional service, Herrington said.

Joel Hysick of AMR and William Gates, director of operations for Guardian Services, asked the commission to reject Southerncross’ application. Gates said, “I run an average of five to six trucks (ambulances) a day. Some days, those guys are screaming busy. The next day they watch TV all day. It’s a very unstable market. A third provider in this area– how will it affect us? It will affect us greatly. We would have to look for alternatives. We would take some big hits. I think eventually, a third provider would be good, but not now. It’s hard to run an ambulance company in Austin, Texas.”

Hysick said AMR, formerly known as Gold Cross, has operated in Austin for about 20 years. When Guardian came into the market, he said, AMR lost about 20 percent of its business to the new company.

One commissioner asked how non-emergency ambulance services are handled in other cities. Herrington said only Austin requires the companies to go through the rigorous franchise process. After the hearing, Gates and Hysick both said they would not want to operate in the “cut-throat environment” that flourishes outside the Austin area. Hysick said in some cities ambulance companies compete “like wrecker services.” At one time, Houston ambulances operated on the principle that “the first company that could throw their sheet on somebody got the call,” he said.

Southerncross’ application and responses from the other two companies show two very different interpretations of Austin’s ambulance market. According to AMR, Austin’s growth has been “primarily younger high-tech workers,” with older residents tending to move away from the city because of the high cost of living. Herrington’s memo says, “Since the last ambulance franchise was granted in September of 1998, billable call volume only increased by 1.82 percent.”

Southerncross argues that the report’s data is based only on call volume and does not address unmet needs. The company says it will increase the standard of care within the city and will cause the other two companies to increase their levels of service also.

In the hall after the vote, Herrington told Southerncross owner Craig LeBlanc and Chris Boehm, operations manager, that his recommendation was not based on a negative view of their company. He said the City Council would not consider the application until after the 2000-2001 budget is approved, sometime in September. In the meantime, all three companies can be expected to lobby heavily for their respective positions.

Harry Savio

Executive vice-president, Texas Capitol Area Builders Association

By Nancy Love

Harry Savio is one of the development industry’s primary advocates in Central Texas. Savio has been with the Texas Capitol Area Builders Association (TxCABA) for ten years and has held his current position– executive vice-president–since August of 1999.

The builders association represents the residential construction industry in an eight-county area that includes Travis County, focusing on public policy and industry education.

Savio says, “We try to keep the construction industry informed on what’s happening, both in the evolution of the industry and its technology, as well as in governmental and regulatory changes.” The group produces a monthly newsletter as well as a weekly news bulletin.

Savio says he enjoys being involved in advocacy for the home building industry. He has worked in municipal government and also as a builder and developer. He says, “This job provides the opportunity to combine knowledge from both areas and apply it. Homebuilding is an industry with which I’m proud to be associated. I have very deep roots in it, having worked in this industry for twenty years”

The disheartening aspect of the industry, he says, is that dealing with governmental entities can sometimes place an economic burden on the individual homebuilder.

TxCABA is currently working on educational programs. It recently hosted a training program on occupational health and safety that was funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. It has a certified graduate builder program, and is also involved in the development of vocational education programs.

Savio discusses an area in which his experience with city government is relevant: “New codes are likely to evolve in the region that we hope all municipalities will adopt together. It could be difficult building in the area if we have a different method of code interpretation in different neighborhood development areas. Building officials are meeting in our office once a month and we sit a builder down with them so that they can get a perspective from the builder.” Currently, Savio said, members of the organization are reviewing the IRC (International Residential Code) “on a page by page, chapter by chapter basis so that everyone can get a common understanding of how those codes are going to be interpreted and applied.”

Savio believes that the number one problem facing Austin is transportation and number two is housing affordability. “In terms of transportation, one thing that most people don’t realize is that most of the roads that have been built in the last ten years have been built by the private sector…the cost of building the streets in your neighborhood are included in the cost of your house when you buy it. The City of Austin has done some major roadway projects. But in terms of dollar amounts, that has really been dwarfed by the private sector—and it now shows on our streets and roadways.”

He continues, “Housing affordability is a big issue for our industry. One of the fun things about this industry is that these guys really believe that everyone who wants to own a home ought to be able to own one.”

Savio says there are a number of issues relating to housing affordability that cannot be blamed on anyone. “Some of the problems are systematic and derive from the nature of the economy right now. But one of the things we can’t do is to do nothing.”

The cost of labor, for example, has to rise with the cost of living. The cost of land is high and the cost of land development is even higher, he says.

Savio noted, “The City of Austin announced in their policy budget that they have a new $75 fee for plan review at the same time that the construction division of the Development Review and Inspection Department is netting $6 million a year. They have $2 million in costs versus $8 million in revenue and I think that’s an affront to housing affordability.”

Savio’s first job was working for the City of Austin, where he advanced to the position of budget director. He holds a bachelor’s degree in government from Tarleton State University and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of North Texas.

He was born in Anchorage, Alaska on October 14, 1949. He and his wife, Claudia, have three sons. He enjoys playing racquetball when he’s not working, but admits, “That’s fairly rare.”.

Changing chairs…Austin’s Resource Management Commission is expected to elect a new chair and vice chair Tuesday evening. Word is out that Michael Osborne is most like to take over the chair position. The meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at Town Lake Center, Room 130… No water woes…While the City of Austin struggles to pump out enough treated water to serve its customers, the Lower Colorado River Authority’s (LCRA)West Travis County regional facility still has capacity to spare. According to LCRA spokesman Bill McCann, that plant hit a peak for the year of 3.025 million gallons Sunday. However, the all time peak for that facility was 3.14 million gallons, which occurred last August. McCann said the plant has a design capacity of 5.8 million gallons/day. The LCRA doesn’t know exactly how many customers it has because the agency sells to six retailers and has a limited number of retail customers. “We did pick up 80 residential and commercial meters within the City of Austin within the last two weeks,” he said… Broken records…The Planning Commission is scheduled for action on the Hyde Park Baptist Church’s application to vacate an alley in the 3900 block of Speedway. Neighborhood advocates told the commission last week they oppose the alley closing. The commission is also scheduled to consider the on-site sewage facilities ordinance (OSSF).

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