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Council will wait to fund

Friday, April 19, 2002 by

Next year's campaign coffers

Wynn says college students could fund huge beer bust

Council Member Will Wynn’ s favorite scenario for how Austin’s tax dollars might be spent if voters approve Proposition 1, the public financing proposal for City Council elections, starts with 500 college students who all belong to the same organization. The enterprising group selects one of its members to file as a candidate, collecting $5 from each member. Having done that, the candidate gets $16, 666 to campaign.

“Of course, different people campaign in different ways. My crackerjack staff has done some quick research and for $16,666 you can buy 200 kegs of beer and 100 pounds of potato chips,” Wynn told fellow Council members yesterday. “And so, my suggestion is, by simply putting a banner over 200 kegs of beer that says ‘Vote for Our Candidate, Free Beer,’ you are in fact campaigning. I’m hard pressed to believe there won’t be some ingenious young men and women” who will take advantage of the opportunity the ordinance would provide. He concluded that his big concern was that some Aggies would figure out how to qualify.

“But the beer scenario aside, Austin’s a great town . . . and I think we have a uniquely political town and there are any number of organizations, not student-related, that could take advantage of significant public funding for candidates of their choice. And that’s the intent of this ordinance, I presume.” City staff have already arrived at the conclusion that next year’s election could cost nearly $2 million if the amendment is approved.

The Council yesterday decided to wait a week before determining how much money the city would need to set aside to immediately fund Proposition 1, but not before both Wynn and Mayor Gus Garcia pointed out some flaws they see in the ordinance and the way signatures were gathered.

Garcia said that most people he had talked to who favor the ordinance thought it would merely replace the $100 limit on campaign contributions with a $200 limit. The signers of the petitions favoring the Charter amendment did not know about the powers given to the city’s Ethics Review Commission, nor did they know that one-quarter of one percent of the city budget might be appropriated by the amendment.

Council Member Raul Alvarez did not seem to be amused by Wynn’s college student story. He questioned Wynn’s assumption that immediate funding called for by the ordinance really means that the city must come up with funds for candidates right away, asking Assistant City Attorney John Steiner about the language of the initiative. “Has staff taken a position on whether this requires immediate appropriation?”

Steiner replied, “It’s up to the City Council,” as far as funding the portion of the initiative that would actually go to candidates. However, he and other staff members agreed with the Clean Campaign’s Fred Lewis, that the city would need to hire some staff to administer the program shortly after the election, if the proposal is approved by voters.

Alvarez said he thought it was “inappropriate for us to be insinuating” that the city would need to immediately fund the estimated $2 million for next year’s election if the amendment passes.

Wynn made the motion and Alvarez provided his second to direct City Manager Designee Toby Futrell to produce figures at next week’s Council meeting for interim funds for Ethics Review Commission this summer. The motion was approved unanimously.

Acting Finance Director Vickie Schubert explained how staff arrived at the $1.6 million figure for next year’s election, if Austin continues the at-large system. If single-member districts are approved, she said, her estimate for 2003 would be about $1.9 million. Both of those figures include costs of runoffs also.

Lewis told the Council, “We are being very consistent with other cities. In New York City, the staff estimated it would cost $27 million. It cost four (million). Overestimating the cost is something that staffs all over the country have had a good time doing.”

Futrell said she asked Schubert to explain how she arrived at her numbers because staff has been “accused of high-balling” the numbers.

Schubert said, “I did link (on the Internet) to some of the other places that had this.” She said Austin is simply not like the other cities that have public financing. “Knowing what active citizen groups, special interest groups, we have, it's hard for me to imagine we wouldn’t have a little higher participation in that first year. Everybody is so different . . . I spent some time looking at them, but this was just my best shot.”

According to Lewis, participating Council candidates will be able to get a maximum of $72,000 in public funding, while Mayoral candidates could receive twice that amount. If non-participating candidates exceed the spending limits imposed on participating candidates, the candidates who do participate in public financing will be able to ask for more money. “Similarly, races in which substantial independent expenditures (25% of the expenditure limits) occur,” or $25,000 for Council races, “will trigger additional dollar for dollar public funding for participating candidates that have reached the original expenditure limit, up to the 50% cap.”

In other action:

The Council delayed a hearing and decision on a conditional-use permit for the Sammy's House daycare center at 4814 Red River for one week. The Planning Commission had approved the permit to let the daycare for special-needs kids expand its enrollment, but some neighbors appealed to the Council, citing concerns over traffic and safety. The case had been posted for a hearing by the Council last week. But the city failed to properly notify neighbors who are appealing about the location of the meeting, which was moved from the LCRA to the Conley-Guerrero Senior Activity Center in east Austin after notices were sent out. Some of opponents to the conditional-use permit were out of town Thursday and requested a delay until next week. That disappointed the dozens of Sammy's House supporters, who packed the council chambers wearing red t-shirts, red hats, and ribbons. Mayor Gus Garcia promised them that all of their sign-in cards would be saved for next week’s hearing and their names read into the record as supporting the day care, which serves six multiply-handicapped children, but wants to expand to 12. Read about the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Plan on Monday.

County probate judge strong

Advocate for hospital district

Gray Panthers organizing meetings to consider Travis district

Probate Judge Guy Herman is one of the most passionate advocates for a Travis County Hospital District and has been urging others to support a ballot measure on the district this November.

Herman could hardly stop talking Tuesday night about the advantages of a county-wide public health district at a forum co-hosted by the Gray Panthers and the League of Women Voters. Herman complained of judges’ inability to commit indigent people to a local hospital for psychiatric or chemical dependency treatment. He recounted sending people who appeared in his court to Wichita Falls or Harlingen to get treatment because of a lack of public beds in Austin. He described how more than 400 inmates in the Travis County jail are now classified as having some type of mental illness, yet have virtually no access to proper treatment. Housing a mentally ill inmate costs about $50 a day more than housing an average inmate, Herman said.

Travis County is the only major urban county in the state without a hospital district, Herman said. And he pointed out that its current combined tax rate is far lower than Tarrant, Bexar or Harris counties. He explained how a 5-cent tax rate could generate more than $30 million toward indigent care, while the county and city spend a combined $18 million for indigent health care under their current budgets. He believes an election should be held for Travis County alone, rather than wait on a regional approach to a hospital district.

Herman called the inability of Travis County to serve its poor “shameful.” He called the inability to provide public beds in Austin “outrageous.” And he referred to elected leaders who could have created a hospital district “irresponsible.” And after speaking almost non-stop for 45 minutes, Herman paused long enough to take a breath and admit he felt a bit strongly about the topic of hospital district election.

“There can be no more waiting,” Herman said. “This is a very good time for an election. There should be no more waiting. We need to get it on the ballot in November.”

Herman has gathered twice the number of necessary signatures to call the election. He’s now trying to gather support for the concept with local groups. If an election is not called this November, it will have to wait another four years.

Pat Hayes, interim president of the Seton Health Care network in Austin, also spoke at the forum. Seton runs city-owned Brackenridge Hospital, which spends almost $40 million of its own money for indigent care each year. If a hospital district was approved, the ownership of the hospital would revert from the city to the newly created hospital district; Seton would cease to be the administrator of the hospital.

Hayes told the crowd she agreed with Herman on the need. But Hayes and Herman have parted ways on just when a plan for the district should be drafted. Herman wants to get the district approved and then let the appointed board of directors hammer out an operation plan. Hayes, on the other hand, wants to see a plan in place before she votes. She also wants to know which funding from the school district, city and county would remain and which funding would go away under the hospital district.

“I think we’ve all got to be in the room and agree on the plan,” Hayes told the audience. “Otherwise, we’re going to have mixed reactions. We need to have some things decided to have the best chance.”

Herman blamed some of the resistance to a hospital district on a fear of change. State law allows either a county-wide or regional hospital district. Herman thinks a county-wide district, which could be created under Chapter 281 of the Health and Safety Code, has the best chance of success at this point. The Gray Panthers have scheduled a second forum in June to take a more extensive look at the concept.

City PIO honored by Women in Communications . . . City of Austin Public Information Officer Michele Middlebrook-Gonzalez, has been chosen as Austin’s most outstanding communicator for 2002 by the Association for Women in Communications. She will receive the award at the group’s Banner Brunch on May 4. She has served as public information officer for the city for more than six years and is the city’s liaison with national, state and local media, as well as Austin citizens . . . Insider politics—progressives endorse McCracken, Slusher, Goodman . . . The Austin Progressive Coalition, which is a combination of Central Austin Democrats (CAD) and University Democrats, has voted to endorse challenger Brewster McCracken over Council Member Beverly Griffith, whom they have supported in the past. Griffith’s supporters were surprised and dismayed after the vote. University Democrats, which has a mainly youthful membership, had already voted to endorse McCracken. However, CAD’s first vote on the question of whether to support Griffith or McCracken resulted in a tie. The group then voted to endorse McCracken in the runoff. The liberal group voted to oppose Proposition 1, the public financing of City Council campaigns, and in favor of repealing the current Council term limits provision, which is Proposition 4. The two groups split over the single-member district question, so APC will have no position on that . . . Austin Technology Council announces international technology fair . . . The Tech Council will host more than 50 exhibitors from around the world today from 10am to 3:30pm at the Austin Convention Center. For more information, visit www.austintechnologycouncil.org . . . Huffman returning to City of Austin . . . Laura J. Huffman, who has been deputy city manager for San Marcos since 1994, will return to Austin as Assistant City Manager beginning on April 29. She will replace Betty Dunkerley, who retired and is running for City Council. However, her duties have not yet been determined. Finance Director John Stephens, who has been serving in the temporary role of Assistant City Manager, said Thursday he expects to be able to return to his regular job in two to four months, when an additional Assistant City Manager is hired . . . Knocking the Chief . . . Place 3 City Council candidate Billy Sifuentes held a campaign news conference on the steps of APD headquarters Thursday to announce he had received the ‘co-endorsement’ of the Austin Police Association's Political Action Committee. The PAC also endorsed incumbent Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman. Sifuentes used the opportunity to list several areas in which he felt the police department needed improvement. Those concerns–including the timing of the upcoming cadet class and procedures used at the new Central Booking facility—are all items handled administratively by APD officials or city staff, not by Council members. Sifuentes said if he's elected to the Council he'll put more public pressure on Police Chief Stan Knee. “I know he's done a good job in the past, I know he can do a better job in the future,” Sifuentes said. “He just simply needs to get reconnected.”

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