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Place 6 Council Member faces two unknown opponents

Monday, March 17, 2003 by

City Council Member Danny Thomas launched his re-election campaign in East Austin on Friday flanked by friends, relatives and supporters. Thomas, a former police office who won the Place 6 seat in 2000, said his priorities for another three-year term would be similar to those on which he campaigned last time.

“I want to let you know that your councilman in Place 6 still has the same platform: restoring the voice of the people at City Hall—meaning letting the community know what City Hall is all about,” he said. He described his major accomplishment in office so far as “listening to people, being honest and bringing issues to the front . . . letting people know how the city works . . . just being open. When I started out three years ago, I didn’t have an agenda, I didn’t promise anything,” Thomas said. “I did say that one thing that I would do would be to make sure the community knows what was going on . . . and deal with some of the issues that had been neglected.”

On the issue of the upcoming debate over the city budget, Thomas pledged to seek ways to bridge the estimated $70 million gap between expenses and revenues without a dramatic impact on city services. “Everybody knows the economy is really hurting; we’re having a problem with the city budget. We’re going to work very hard to make sure that if there are cuts, that they will be so limited that they will not affect many people in the City of Austin,” he said. Thomas also indicated he would place a priority on preserving the office of the Police Monitor as the city negotiates a new Meet and Confer agreement with the Austin Police Association. “Even the president of the Police Association has made a commitment that he would support the Police Monitor. It is very important that we have the Monitor,” he said. “I think we as a Council have made it very clear that position will be back, because the community is asking for that. The community needs that. It keeps a good rapport between the community and the police department.”

Thomas is facing two possible opponents so far. Arash Ebrahimi and Robert “Wes” Benedict have both filed paperwork with the City Clerk’s office indicating their plans to seek the Place 6 seat and appointing campaign treasurers.

City seeking to share costs of indigent care

Rep. Elliott Naishtat (D-Austin) filed legislation to create the Central Texas Health Care District last week, but he does not have universal buy-in from the Travis County delegation.

The legislation is a hybrid of existing state code and the special circumstances of Travis County: a city-owned hospital, a county-owned clinic system, the desire to see surrounding counties eventually share the cost of trauma services and one of the last urban areas in the state without a hospital district. Seton Healthcare Network, which currently manages both Brackenridge and the Children’s hospitals, has estimated it spends almost $8 million each year on out-of-county indigent care.

Like most hospital districts, the Central Texas Health Care District would be funded by property taxes, and that is the source of Rep. Todd Baxter’s (R-Austin) resistance. The district’s steering committee has proposed untangling the interdependent city-county relationship and carving out a tax rate for the new hospital district. Residents in Travis County’s extra-territorial jurisdiction could expect to pay a little more; residents within the Austin city limits might pay slightly less.

Baxter, a former member of the Travis County Commissioners Court, says simply moving the tax money around is not the answer to the most efficient health care services in Travis County.

“That option only guarantees growth on both sides of the equation,” Baxter said. “I am opposed to the possibility of a new ad valorem tax for the residents of Travis County.”

Ad valorem taxes might be reduced for city or county residents, but that reduction is likely to be eaten up by new tax increases, Baxter said. Instead of efficiency, the hospital district would instead increase bureaucracy for city and county residents.

According to a report from Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn’s office, hospital districts can either impose a property tax or levy a sales tax. Figures showed 132 hospital districts levied $730 million in property taxes in 1998. Another eight districts levied $17 million in sales taxes.

Supporters of the hospital district legislation say the district will more fairly disburse the cost of health care. Council Member Betty Dunkerley, who chairs the City Council health care subcommittee, said the bill is flexible enough to address many of the issues, such as how the balance of power between the city and county will be maintained on the board; how ambulance and emergency services and other assets such as StarFlight are transferred to the district; and how the city and county might share clinics that also include health and human service functions for the county.

“We’ve looked at a lot of different ways to handle the issues. Should everybody keep their clinic facilities? Should the district lease that space from the county or the city? What’s best?” Dunkerley queried. “I think we’re very cognizant of the issues, and we’ve put in the flexibility to address them. The point is to make sure neither the city nor the county is hurt in any way by this legislation, and that’s why you can’t be quite so prescriptive in the bill.”

John Hrncir, Austin’s chief lobbyist, says the hospital district bill is now in the hands of the Travis County delegation. He said it is the delegation’s job to reach a consensus on the bill.

Henry has long record as defender of environment

Environmental attorney Stuart Henry has been elected as the new Chairman of the Board of Directors of the SOS Alliance, replacing out-going chairman Kirk Mitchell, who will continue on the board as vice-chairman. Henry represented SOSA in 1999 in discussions involving the City of Austin and the LCRA, and also represented the Sierra Club in a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Sierra Club vs. Lujan).

Henry expects 2003 to be a major year for the environmental group. “We’ve got about twice as big of a staff as we had last year, so we’re planning on doing a lot more of the things we’ve done in the past,” he said. That will likely include further efforts in Hays County to protect the recharge and contributing zones of the Edwards Aquifer in cooperation with other groups.

While having a prominent environmental lawyer on the board could prove helpful in the group’s legal battles, Henry says the group will be working to achieve solutions outside of the courtroom. “We think if you go and talk to the person on the street and you ask them, ‘Who is the pre-eminent environmental organization?’ we think a lot of folks will say SOS,” he said. But that public reputation has not always gained the group favor with local elected officials. “SOS’s sometimes ‘in your face’ approach . . . has turned a few of those folks sour, and I think we’re going to try to heal some of those relationships by demonstrating to them that SOS will work with them.”

Candidate Forums . . . City Council and Mayoral candidates are invited to speak at the North Austin Civic Association’s candidate forum at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Lanier High School, 1201 Peyton Gin Rd. Independent Texans host their forum Sunday, March 22, 3-5 p.m. at the University of Texas Chemical & Petroleum Bldg., Rm. 2.208 . . . Helping the city with budget problems . . . Betty Baker, chair of the Zoning and Platting Commission, last week appointed three members of the commission to look at fees charged by the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department to see whether they are equitable in terms of using staff time. Baker says she wants Commissioners Melissa Whaley, John Donisi and John Michael Cortes to come up with ideas that will help the city in its budget crisis. Baker said she was particularly wondering if work done by the Dispute Resolution Office might be better handled by the private sector. Baker told fellow commissioners she thought commission members could look at their agendas the week before a scheduled meeting and decide whether they would need an attorney present for that particular meeting. Assistant City Attorney Marty Terry, who was attended her second night meeting in as many days—after a full day at the office—responded enthusiastically to that suggestion. Even though the city’s lawyers are not paid overtime for such meetings, she told In Fact Daily that they would be more productive if they spent fewer hours in lengthy nighttime meetings . . . Campaigns await decision . . . The campaigns of mayoral contenders Will Wynn and Brad Meltzer appear to be in high gear at this point, seven weeks out from Election Day. Meltzer has been buying billboard space to more quickly increase his name recognition. Wynn, who is better known though not exactly a household name, spent most of Saturday walking in South Austin, according to campaign manager Mark Nathan. Wynn, Meltzer, Max Nofziger and Leslie Cochran appeared at yesterday’s Libertarian Party forum. All are awaiting a decision from Federal Judge Harry Hudspeth on whether the city’s $100 contribution limit passes constitutional muster. He is expected to rule today or tomorrow. The Wynn and Katz campaigns are both making plans based on both possibilities. Nathan said Wynn has raised funds from 750 contributors so far. “The conventional wisdom is that Will Wynn has a pretty good network of well-financed people,” who would be able to fund a much bigger media buy, more volunteer efforts and a bigger staff for the campaign, he said. James Cardona, campaign manager for the Marc Katz campaign, said, “Basically, we’re on hold until we hear something from the judge, but we have plans for both contingencies. And I think everybody else does as well.” He said Katz, whose face is seen regularly advertising his 6th Street restaurant, would definitely increase his television advertising if the limits are suspended. Cardona added, “I think the consensus is to win this race, everybody’s going to have to raise half a million dollars . . . and that’s what we told the judge.” Wednesday is the deadline for filing to run for the City Council . . . Governor to address Metro 8 Chambers today . . . Representatives from the state’s largest metropolitan area chambers of commerce, plus the Texas Mexican-American Chambers of Commerce, the Texas Association of African-American Chambers and the Texas Economic Development Council, are meeting in Austin today to discuss how to create greater economic opportunity, jobs and long-term tax revenue for the state. Governor Rick Perry will share his views on those matters during the group’s luncheon from 12:10-1:15pm at the Hyatt Regency Hotel . . . HLC meets tonight . . . The Historic Landmark Commission is scheduled to meet in Room 325 of One Texas Center at 7:45pm tonight—not their usual time—for a special meeting. The commission will hold a hearing on whether to initiate Historic zoning for a home at 3403 Hampton Road and will consider whether to grant a demolition permit for a home at 305 E. 38th Street. Several other cases are also pending. The Electric Utility Commission is also scheduled to meet at 6pm at Town Lake Center.

© 2003 In Fact News, Inc.

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