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Travis Commissioners split

Wednesday, August 22, 2001 by

3-2 on bond ballot proposal

Commisioners ask voters to approve $199 million in bonds

Travis County Commissioners voted 3-2 Tuesday to put about $199 million in bonds before voters November 6. Commissioners Margaret Gomez of Pct. 4 and Ron Davis of Pct. 1 voted against the package, saying it would cost too much for people in their precincts.

The package includes $66 million for right-of-way for SH 130—putting Travis County at a match of 50 percent with state and federal funds. County transportation staff had whittled that sum down to $21 million in an effort to reduce the package (see In Fact Daily, August 21, 2001).

County Judge Sam Biscoe opened the discussion by asking commissioners if they wanted to start with the staff’s suggested package of $147 million. Davis said they could start there and work their way down. Gomez said, “I know that this community has a lot of needs. But I think the county has to do what a lot of people do with their home budgets. You exercise delayed gratification.” She said she wanted to begin by looking at the original $80 million package. Biscoe, Pct. 2 Commissioner Karen Sonleitner and Pct. 3 Commissioner Todd Baxter wanted to add on to what staff had recommended. Biscoe suggested that each precinct could add $5 million to the amounts recommended by staff, and Sonleitner made it known right away that she wanted $5.19 million for Wells Branch Parkway and Heatherwilde Blvd.

Commissioners also added Flint Rock Road from SH 71 to Serene Hills, for $2.3 million. That is in Baxter’s Pct. 3 in the Lakeway area, and was added at his request. Baxter also added funds for ball fields at the proposed Southwest Metro Park. Gomez removed the Carson Creek flood remediation project at Jet Lane from the recommended list, saying that the city was going to annex the property and could pay for the flood control. Her move deleted $3.5 million from the list.

Following the meeting, Gomez told In Fact Daily, “I just really think we needed to keep our expectations down to a minimum to address what we really need today . . . We can always come back in five years or sooner, if it’s necessary . . . Citizens are really taxed to the max right now.” She said that the city and the county should be doing bond planning together, not separately. “We work on it, and as soon as we complete it, Austin or another city annexes it. That’s counterproductive to me. That’s why I think the county and the City of Austin need to do the planning of these bond issues together.”

Baxter almost lost in his battle to keep the extension of Frate Barker Road on the list. Biscoe indicated at the beginning of the meeting that the road would be discussed separately Residents of Shady Hollow had lobbied hard for the $13 million expansion from SH 45 South to FM 2304. However, environmental groups strongly oppose the road, which would run through city preserve land and across the Barton Springs recharge zone. Baxter wanted the item to be listed on the ballot as part of a group of roads that would have added capacity. Sonleitner, on the other hand, wanted to separate the controversial item from the rest of the roads. Baxter could not get a second for his motion. Davis made a motion to take the road off the ballot altogether and Gomez provided a second. However, they could not find a third vote.

When the vote came on Sonleitner’s motion, only the county judge and Sonleitner raised their hands. Sonleitner looked at Baxter and said, “Take what you can get.” Baxter raised his hand reluctantly.

Reactions to vote

Janice Cartwright of the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA) said she was very pleased with the bond proposal. “It’s really an important step,” she added, “and I commend the three commissioners for their vote. Our message to them was to let voters decide—so by putting it on the ballot as they’ve done, then Travis County voters can make a decisions about what is important.”

Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, sent an email to supporters, asking them to “thank Commissioners Gomez and Davis for their courageous actions on behalf of both the environment and taxpayers.” He said, “Virtually all of the projects will benefit suburban fringe developers first and foremost. Most of the projects will increase traffic congestion by facilitating sprawl and increasing overall vehicle miles traveled.” Although the SOS Alliance board has not met to consider the group’s position, Bunch said that his personal recommendation is that members oppose the entire bond package, not just Frate Barker Road.

Howard Falkenberg, vice chair of the Austin Area Research Organization’s (AARO) transportation committee, said, “AARO is very supportive of the county package . . . We think its necessary and appropriate and doable.” He said he thought the county could issue “$200 million in new bonds plus the already authorized $26 million (for SH 45 North and SH 130) without ruffling feathers among the bond rating companies.

Such a large pot of money, he said, “puts the county in a position to negotiate with state on what they will pick up,” for SH 130, but it does not commit them to spending all of those funds. “We’ve got this terrible problem where no one’s taking leadership. Everybody’s saying let the other guy do it.” Travis County commissioners have stepped up to that leadership role, he said. Now it’s up to the voters.

Jon Beall, president of the Save Barton Creek Association, said, “We’re going to have a great deal of difficulty supporting anything that is going to dump more traffic onto MoPac and does really nothing to improve the issues that we’re concerned about.” The road bonds will “do nothing but exacerbate the problems.”

Beall was particularly critical of Frate Barker, of course, and of Travis Cook Road. The latter, he said, “just got widened and repaved. It’s got Nature Conservancy property on the West and Barton Creek Properties on the East. It would be used almost exclusively by the residents of Barton Creek Properties. If anything could be classified as a boondoggle, that’s one that ranks right up there. Let the developers pay for those (roads) if they want them. Taxpayers have spent enough of their money.”

Commissioners will take a last look at the bond package at next Tuesday’s meeting, but dramatic changes seem unlikely. Turnout for the November 1997 bond election was 12 percent, according to a member of Sonleitner’s staff.

Planning Commission OKs

LIC building at 180 feet

City Council vote now set for end of September

Unswayed by audience members who oppose the project, the Planning Commission last night voted 7-1 to recommend that the Lumbermen’s (LIC) project on West Cesar Chavez be granted the CURE zoning that developers have requested. Commissioner Jean Mather voted against the zoning and Commissioner Robin Cravey was absent.

The Parks and Recreation Board last week voted against supporting the zoning, which would allow LIC to build to 180 feet, because of its possible negative impact on Town Lake Park. The Design Commission has previously voted in favor of it. Jay Hailey of Locke, Liddell & Sapp, who represents LIC, pointed to the previous site plan, which allows for a building of 220 feet near Town Lake, as a major reason for the Planning Commission’s affirmative vote. Hailey explained that the old site plan was approved before the Waterfront Overlay was enacted. Many opponents have argued that LIC would not build to the old plan’s specifications, but others don’t want to take that chance.

Commissioner Sterling Lands made the motion to recommend approval of the staff’s recommendation in favor of CURE zoning. Commissioner Silver Garza supplied the second. Garza said in addition to the problems with the old site plan, Lumbermen’s is offering money for parking and landscaping. He said he thought it was a fair trade for the 180-foot building, which will be the top stair of a series of steps just north of the lake and east of the Lamar Bridge.

Hailey said he learned before last night’s meeting that City Council consideration of the zoning was going to be postponed to September 27 because of a notification problem. The case had been scheduled for next week. Council Member Beverly Griffith and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman have already actively opposed the zoning. (See In Fact Daily, August 21, 2001.) However, Anne Elizabeth Wynn, wife of Council Member Will Wynn, told commissioners she strongly supports the zoning request. “I'm actively in favor of the 180 feet, given what it does for the rest of the development, and given how it stair-steps the development down entering the beauty of the natural environment as you come to Town Lake, and in terms of what that 180-foot building does for Seaholm. Aesthetically, spatially, and specifically in terms of how it does contribute to providing the parking for Seaholm. Having either sat on the board or been with at least four non-profits looking at the Seaholm power plant, parking and the overarching hanging issue of what would be next door has been the defining issue of how and when Seaholm could ever be redeveloped.”

Mather tried to convince commissioners at the beginning of the meeting to postpone action on the matter until next week because of Cravey’s absence. However, only commission Chair Betty Baker joined Mather in voting for the postponement. During an earlier presentation of the Seaholm Mater Plan, Mather noted, “Many parts of this plan are interesting, but I think that the plan was made more to solve Lumbermen's problems that it was to solve pedestrian and bicycle complaints.” Ken Altes, a longtime Seaholm advocate, agreed. “This district plan seems to me to be an LIC district plan. It is too small to encompass the relevant areas. This plan seems to resolve more issues for LIC than for Seaholm. Actually, it creates problems for Seaholm.”

City, Seton work out plan:

Hospital within hospital

City promises no interruption of services

City Manager Jesus Garza has picked the “hospital within a hospital” option to solve the thorny issue of reproductive services at Brackenridge Hospital. Mayor Kirk Watson held a news conference Tuesday to announce Garza’s recommendation, which still requires negotiations between the city and officials with the Seton Healthcare Network, which operates the hospital under a lease agreement.

The city was forced to seek other alternatives for providing certain reproductive services (such as tubal ligations) after a decision earlier this year by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Seton is owned by a Catholic-affiliated charity, and the church has ordered its hospitals to stop providing services that go against the church’s “ethical directives.” More than 600 hospitals in the U.S. will be covered by that policy.

Of the three options being considered by the city (see In Fact Daily, July 19, 2001), Watson says the idea of creating a separate entity within Brackenridge will offer the best service to citizens. “The City of Austin will take back the fifth floor of Brackenridge Hospital and remove it from the lease agreement with Seton,” Watson said. That move would allow another health-care group to operate a facility for OB-GYN services including delivery and tubal ligations. The mayor even found an upside to the plan. “It appears that it would improve the provision of those services,” he said. Seton has operated Brackenridge since October of 1995, but the mayor now says the new “hospital within a hospital” plan will provide significant benefits. That includes operating part of the fifth as a Federally Qualified Health Center clinic, which is the same designation given to City of Austin health clinics.

“We will be able to improve the coordination and improve the delivery of those services for those patients that receive care at both Brackenridge and City of Austin clinics,” Watson said.

The proposal didn’t win much praise from the activists who turned out at a community meeting to discuss the options for Brackenridge on July 18th. “We’re okay with this solution, but it’s not what we would have liked the most,” said Lesley Ramsey with the National Organization for Women. “We would have preferred the city to negotiate a new contract with somebody else, or just take over the whole hospital again.” NOW and other groups held their own “town hall” meeting at the Rosewood-Zaragosa Neighborhood Center last night to discuss the issue.

The financial implications of the proposal aren’t yet entirely clear. “There will be some reduction in what the city pays Seton, and some dollars that will come back to Seton because some of the facility we’re leasing we will no longer be leasing,” said Pat Hayes, Interim President and CEO of the Seton Healthcare Network. “There will be a couple of adjustments in the lease dollars.” Under the current lease arrangement, the city compensates Seton for some expenses it incurs from unpaid bills. Mayor Watson said the city estimates that amount between $1.7 and $2 million dollars per year in the area of births and reproductive services. When the separate fifth-floor hospital takes over those services, that money will no longer be paid to Seton. But Seton will also see a reduction in its lease payments of approximately $500,000 per year over a 20-year period as compensation for the loss of the fifth-floor space.

Watson was hesitant to provide a time-line for the transition, preferring to stress that existing reproductive services at Brackenridge would not be interrupted. But according to Garza, the earliest the new facility would be ready would be late in 2003.

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In the ‘For What It’s Worth’ Department . . . Planning Commissioner Jean Mather made a point of introducing Dusty McCormick as a former planning commissioner when he made comments on the Rosewood Neighborhood Plan last night. Chair Betty Baker couldn’t help but add, “That doesn’t carry a lot of weight,” drawing laughter from the dais. The Planning Commission, as it is currently configured, will hold its final meeting next Tuesday . . . Poll results promised . . . Montgomery & Associates announced yesterday that they have just finished a statewide survey of Republican primary voters, a preview of the 2002 Texas GOP primary. They expect to release some information at the end of this week or early next week. Next month they promise to do a survey of general election voters . . . No new mayoral candidates emerged yesterday. . . But Jennifer Gale is announcing her candidacy in Room 304 of City Hall at 9:30 today. John McPherson has designated himself as his own campaign treasurer. However, he failed to name the office for which he is running when he filed the form with the City Clerk. McPherson indicated that he will not raise or spend more than $500 for the campaign . . . Griffith releases list of accomplishments . . . In response to some uncomplimentary comments in the Austin Chronicle, Council Member Beverly Griffith has taken the time to compile a lengthy list of her accomplishments, both before and during her service on the City Council. For example, Griffith served for eight years on the national board of Big Brothers/Big Sisters and started a dropout prevention program through that organization in Austin. She is the founder of the Austin Parks Foundation and former chair of the Parks Board. Her accomplishments are listed on the letterhead of Griffith Properties, not on city letterhead. She has also issued a “framework for community dialogue,” which lists a number of issues she believes must be addressed. The following statement ends the piece: “Austin is at the crossroads. Our quality of life—for a long time to come—depends on our choice of leadership.” Griffith’s name, phone and fax number and email address are listed below. Griffith said she intends to talk to mayoral candidate Gus Garcia this week.

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