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Burnet legislator wants to cut LCRA, Brazos River Authority boards

Tuesday, March 25, 2003 by

Lower Colorado River Authority General Manager Joe Beal would like to have an environmental advisory panel to consult on thorny issues like the LCRA’s Dripping Springs water line, but at least one legislator apparently thinks the agency already pays too much attention to the environment.

Beal discussed the idea of adding an environmental advisory panel at last week’s LCRA board meeting. Earlier in the week, Beal met with more than 20 local environmentalists to open dialogue on the possibility of forming such a panel, which would be similar to the agency’s lake and river advisory panels. Both committees serve as sounding boards for policy being considered by the LCRA.

Late last week, the Brenham Banner Press reported that Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay) is preparing a bill that would reduce the membership of the boards of both the LCRA and the Brazos River Authority. Currently, the LCRA board has 15 members and the BRA board has 21 members, all of whom serve six-year terms. There have been rumors that Fraser’s legislation would give the governor power to appoint the board chair—which would diminish the autonomy of the two governing bodies. Currently, the board elects the chair, while all board members are appointed by the governor.

Jon Beall, president of the Save Barton Creek Association (SBCA), told In Fact Daily, “An elected official from Burnet has said the LCRA is doing nothing but training new environmentalists through their school children’s program (and that he) may introduce legislation to stop that . . . I think that would be a shocker. I would like to see that idiot exposed.” Fraser represents a 21-county district that includes the Burnet and the Highland Lakes region. His office did not respond to a request for comment.

The environmental leader said, “One of the difficulties with the LCRA is that possibly a very small number of people—only five or six developers—have the ability to influence the State Legislature and negatively impact tens of thousands of people. . . It is not fair to the majority of the people, so I’d like to know who is complaining to this representative from Burnet and what they’re saying. I think the majority of the people that live along the Colorado are very pleased at the water quality and don’t want that to change. Certainly the people in Bastrop are watching it closely.”

The LCRA’s Beal told his board, “It’s not just about Hays County. . . There are a whole lot of environmental issues that impact other parts of our basin.” Beal said he would review the concept of a committee and return with a recommendation to the board.

SBCA’s Jon Beall said his group’s discussion with the LCRA “centered mostly on what could be done, how we could help and on working together on a regional plan.”

Attorney Brad Rockwell, deputy director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, said SOSA is ready to begin a dialogue with the LCRA, but only if the agency is willing to begin a public, democratic planning process that protects water quality.

“If LCRA is willing to do that, we wholeheartedly support it and would like to be involved in that,” Rockwell said, adding that such a line does nothing more than spur development. “We have filed suit against them in the past to force them to adopt some basic water quality controls,” Rockwell said. “We’ll do whatever we can to protect the aquifer, and that includes talking to LCRA and working with them if they are genuinely willing to restrain the extension of water lines or do it exclusively through a public regional plan.”

LCRA Spokesman Robert Cullick said the 14-mile $14 million dollar pipeline from Bee Caves to Dripping Springs is intended to get Dripping Springs off groundwater. The line will provide a million gallons of water a day to the area, which has been plagued by drought in recent years.

Cullick said all development would include approval under the guidelines of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Those guidelines are stricter than the city’s SOS standards, he said.

The line could potentially serve a large swath of Southwest Travis County and Northern Hays County, Cullick said. To date, only a couple of hundred homes have been connected to the pipeline, he said. As an infrastructure provider, the LCRA wants to be involved in the process, but the agency is not involved in the land development business, he added.

“What we’ve said is that good planning and good regulation will determine the number of homes that need to be served. We’ll serve the homes that need to be served to the extent those folks want to buy water from us.”

District legislation does not face smooth sailing

Supporters of a proposed health care district for Austin and Travis County answered questions about the plan at a town hall meeting sponsored by the League of Women Voters Monday night at LCRA headquarters. About 100 people attended the meeting to hear more about the bill authored by State Representative Elliott Naishtat (D-Austin) and the growing pressures on the local health care system and Brackenridge Hospital.

Attorney David Hilgers, who’s been working on the legislation with city and county officials, reminded the crowd that the legislative measure had been drafted to accommodate Austin’s unique circumstances. The city owns the major local hospital, Brackenridge, while county governments normally carry out that function in Texas. Hilgers said there was no guarantee that the enabling legislation would win approval from state lawmakers to allow citizens to vote this fall. “We wanted it to go on the local and consent calendar,” said Hilgers. “In order to do that, all of your legislative delegation has to sign on to it. Right now, we don’t have all of the legislative delegation.” The concern among some Republican members is that the health care district would lead to an increased tax burden on citizens. But, Hilgers said, residents would likely be paying for increasing health care costs with or without a special district. “Just because you don’t have a health care district doesn’t mean the city and the county won’t have to raise taxes to pay for those health care costs increasing,” he said. He also pointed out that whatever tax rate the district sets would have to be approved by voters. “We are not asking for this tax to be assessed without an election,” he said. “The people of this community would be able to vote on whether they want this health care district . . . whether they want this tax.”

Figures provided by Anne Dunkelberg of the Center for Public Policy Priorities show that about six cents of the current City of Austin property tax rate goes to funding health care, with only one cent of the Travis County property tax rate going to health care. Combined, that produces a total budget of $31 million. Dunkelberg projects that bringing the amount paid by those residents outside the city limits to the six-cent level would raise another $5 million each year.

The unequal amounts paid by city residents and county residents is one of the driving factors behind the efforts of Probate Judge Guy Herman to get the measure before voters this fall. Herman has gathered enough signatures to put a standard hospital district measure on the ballot should the custom-crafted measure in the legislature fail. “The city, bless their soul, has paid for something they shouldn’t have had to pay for,” Herman said. “That’s something the county government, by law, is obligated to be doing and our county hasn’t dealt with that properly over these last 30 years. We need to have one entity responsible for our health care.”

Clarke Heidrick of the Central Texas Health Care District Steering Committee cautioned that the district would not be a cure-all for the growing strain on the resources of Brackenridge. “A health care district is not a panacea,” Heidrick said. “What a health care district does is provide tax equity.” But he also predicted that budget pressures at the state and federal level would have a major role in local funding decisions. “We believe that there is going to be a health care crisis based on the available of funding,” he said. “The people that are going to have to deal with that are local communities. Health care is a local issue.”

Alvarez photo op . . . At 9am this morning, Council Member Raul Alvarez will take a sledge hammer to one of the Holly Power Plant’s fuel storage tanks—and people will probably cheer. Alvarez will take part in the mayhem as work begins to scrap two 800,000-gallon tanks from the plant on the road toward closing it . . . BCP hearing today . . . County commissioner turned state representative Todd Baxter has filed a bill that would require the City of Austin and Travis County to count land purchased under the city’s Barton Springs watershed protection program for Balcones Canyonlands Preserve (BCP) property. The city and the county have joined forces to create the BCP, a plan for 30,000 acres of habitat for endangered species such as the Golden-cheeked warbler and Black-capped vireo. The city’s water quality program, funded by bond money for that purpose, has purchased other property, some of which—but not all—may also be warbler or vireo habitat. Council Member Will Wynn plans to speak against the legislation at a hearing scheduled for 2pm, or upon adjournment, today in the House Committee on State Cultural and Recreational Resources. The hearing is planned for room E2.014 . . . AFSCME to announce endorsements today . . . The public employees union is scheduled to announce the group’s recommendations for Mayor and City Council at 11:30am today at the AFL-CIO building, 11th and Lavaca. The Austin Firefighters PAC and the local Central Labor Council are expected to announce their endorsements at the same time. Council Member Danny Thomas said he would be receiving the nod from AFSCME and a spokesman for the Will Wynn campaign said the groups would be endorsing him for Mayor . . . Charities invited to apply for city campaign . . . The City of Austin, which allows designated charities to solicit contributions from city employees, is accepting applications from organizations wanted to participate in this years combined charities campaign. For more information, call Delia Zapata or Kim Peterson at 974-3400 . . . Barton Springs forum . . . The Community Outreach and Education Program Center for Research on Environmental Disease will host a community forum on Barton Springs Thursday night, beginning at 6:30pm at the Palmer Events Center, Rooms 1-5. The forum is funded by the MD Anderson Cancer Center and will cover much of the information that was presented at a City Council work session last month. It seems highly unlikely that the Council meeting will have adjourned by that time . . . Racial profiling forum . . . The Office of Police Monitor will hold a forum for teenagers on racial profiling Friday from 6 to 8pm at the Dove Springs Recreation Center. The program is designed to offer guidance to middle and high school students on how to interact positively with police and avoid confrontation. For more information, call 974-9090 . . . Tonight’s candidate forums . . . South Austin Democrats will hear from candidates and vote on endorsements beginning at 6 pm at Gardner Betts Juvenile Center. The Austin Lesbian/Gay Political Caucus candidate forum is scheduled for 7 pm at the AFL/CIO Auditorium. At 9am, the Retiree’s Coordinating Board will hear from candidates at the Senior Activity Center, 2874 Shoal Crest Ave . . . Late entry . . . Joaquin Fox, who has addressed the City Council on a few occasions, has filled out an application with the City of Austin to be an official write-in candidate for Mayor.

© 2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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