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Hospital district bills

Thursday, April 24, 2003 by

On track for floor votes

Baxter, who opposed bill, did not testify

Perseverance paid off for supporters of the proposed Central Texas Healthcare District Wednesday night, as the healthcare district bill authored by State Rep. Elliott Naishtat cleared the House County Affairs Committee by a vote of 5-0. That vote came at around 8:30pm, more than 12 hours after the posted start of the meeting.

By the time the House committee took up the measure, its companion piece had already cleared the corresponding committee in the Senate without conflict. Supporters of the measure had anticipated some resistance in the House, in part due to comments from State Rep. Todd Baxter (R-Austin) that he was concerned about the provisions in the bill allowing the proposed district to levy property taxes. In response to those concerns, Naishtat modified the proposal before submitting it to the County Affairs Committee for review. “The bill as originally filed would have authorized the district to impose a tax rate up to the maximum allowed under the Texas constitution, which is 75 cents per $100 of valuation,” Naishtat said. “The main change is that we will now provide a statutory cap on the amount of tax the district could impose of no more than one-third of the maximum rate. So the most that we could tax would be 25 cents per $100 valuation.”

Baxter did not express his concerns about the measure to the committee in person Tuesday night. He was present in the late afternoon and early evening when committee members returned after the adjournment of the full House, but was not present when they finally took up the measure shortly before 7:30pm. One person did register as being opposed to the bill, but was not present to testify. In contrast, well over 50 people registered as being in favor of the bill, although many were unable to stay until the end of the hearing. The city staff and prominent community members who were present when the bill was discussed include Council Member Betty Dunkerley, former Mayor Bruce Todd, former State Representative Glenn Maxey, Acting Assistant City Manager John Stephens, Acting Chief of Staff Michael McDonald, Assistant City Attorney Sally Henley and Governmental Relations Officer John Hrncir. Attorney David Hilgers, Clarke Heidrick and Probate Judge Guy Herman handled the bulk of the testimony before the committee, answering questions about specific language in the bill and explaining why the city and county were both seeking permission to form a health care district.

“Right now, we have a very bifurcated system where we have multiple entities trying to manage and integrate the health care system in our area,” Hilgers told the lawmakers. “What we’re trying to do is give the voters an opportunity to vote for a system that will have a better chance to integrate. They don’t have to approve it. People from all walks of life have spent the past year trying to figure out how to do this best, and this is what we came up with.”

The toughest questions about the specifics of the bill came from Rep. Warren Chisum and Rep. Dan Flynn. Chisum was concerned about a provision granting the district the authority to impose a sales tax. But a sales tax, explained John Stephens, was not a possibility in the near future. Any tax would have to be applied uniformly across the district, and several of the municipalities within the district are already at the state-mandated maximum sales tax rate. Herman added that the sales tax provision was inserted in case the Legislature adjusted the sales-tax cap, or if cities volunteered to lower their rate to make room for the hospital district to implement a sales tax. “This tax provision we put in there is straight out of the current statute that all hospital districts have access to the sales tax,” Judge Herman said. “We put it in our bill to make sure that wouldn’t be precluded from sales tax if it were to become available.” Flynn wanted to hear more information about how other areas could join the district and who would pay for those elections. He also asked for details about the provision addressing abortion services at Brackenridge Hospital. The hospital does not currently perform abortions, nor could it under the contract between the city and the Seton Healthcare Network to run the hospital.

The vote to pass the measure out of committee and on to the full House of Representatives for consideration was unanimous. Committee Chair Glenn Lewis, Rep. Wayne Smith, Rep David Farabee, Rep. Chente Quintanilla and Rep. Dora Olivo were all in favor. Other members of the committee were either off the dais at the time of the vote or absent from the meeting. If the measure clears the House and the Senate to become law, it would allow Austin and Travis County to hold a public referendum on the health care district, possibly as soon as November.

Increased revenues would come before rebates

Members of the group Liveable City celebrated on Wednesday after Michigan-based Borders Books and Music announced it would not open a store at the intersection of Sixth and Lamar, across the street from local institutions Waterloo Records and BookPeople. But the loss of one big-name tenant does not spell the end of the Sixth+Lamar project, nor will it put an end to the ongoing debate over city incentives to guide growth and development.

Borders made its decision based on the many changes in the design of the project over the past few years. “We’ve been involved in this project for a couple of years,” said company spokeswoman Ann Binkley. “It originally started out larger. As we reviewed the site, we just decided it was no longer feasible for us as a company.” Borders currently has two other locations in Austin.

Officials with Schlosser Development say they were aware of Borders concerns about the design changes, along with company plans to scale back expansion efforts. “It’s not a secret that their book chain has not done well in the last couple of quarters and their growth was being reassessed,” said Gregory Kallenberg. “This project is not the one they initially signed on for . . . It was for the two-block internally focused mall concept. Now it’s a one-block project it’s totally different.” The withdrawal of a major tenant leaves the company free to make more design changes, he said. Kallenberg, who is creative director for the company, said Schlosser would change the leasing arrangements for the current Whole Foods space, “so that instead of having that one big tenant we will have two or three other tenants.” Whole Foods is still planning to be the major anchor tenant in the new development with its corporate offices.

One of the business owners who would have felt the greatest impact from the Borders store had only kind words for the company. “I’ve always admired and respected those guys as a competitor, and I think they’re a very savvy retailer.” said John Kunz, owner of Waterloo Records. “They made a business decision they felt like they needed to make.” Kunz stressed that his objection had not been to competition, but to the city incentives the developer was seeking. “The original reasons I believe some of these incentives were put into place were to keep businesses from going out over the aquifer and to try to encourage a more dense central core,” he said. “And being part of the central core I’m all for that. But I do think that we need to come up with a different matrix for those incentives that doesn’t penalize what’s homegrown in Austin.”

That’s the message being sent to city leaders by members of Liveable City. “Liveable City appreciates Borders’ move away from 6th and Lamar. It will allow the community more time to consider positive alternatives for that site and for downtown in general,” said board member Robin Rather. “It also gives us a chance to further protect our local independent businesses as we pursue the creation of more jobs.” The group last fall commissioned an economic analysis that revealed how a locally-owned business returns a much greater percentage of its earnings back to the local economy than one owned by an out-of-state corporation. (See In Fact Daily, December 11, 2002).

While the debate over incentives and Smart Growth continues at City Hall, developer Brad Schlosser is still working to make the Sixth+Lamar project a reality. City Council Member Betty Dunkerley said the city has made an offer to Whole Foods that is “very similar to” the proposal being offered to The Domain, which was detailed in Wednesday’s work session. That would follow the guidelines laid out in the recent report by the Mayor’s Task Force on the Economy, which calls for incentives to be paid out on the “back end” once a project is finished rather than on the “front end” in the form of fee waivers. “We’ve made the offer. The ball’s in their court and we really don’t know what they want to do,” Dunkerley said. “We think Whole Foods is really a poster child for local business. They are a great asset to the community and we want to do everything we can to keep them here.”

Argument continues over effect of pipeline on growth

The Lower Colorado River Authority’s board approved four wholesale water service agreements yesterday for five developments along the Dripping Springs pipeline.

The four agreements, approved on the consent agenda at yesterday’s meeting, will be the first new development in Northern Hays County served by the Dripping Springs pipeline. Environmentalists have argued that the pipeline will only encourage development in environmentally sensitive areas. The LCRA counters that it is addressing an existing need that will continue, with or without the pipeline.

“This area had a tremendous amount of growth already,” said LCRA spokesman Robert Cullick. “Without the pipeline, two things would happen: people would be pumping groundwater from the aquifer—which we don’t want—and they would be developing with no US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) standards.”

The Dripping Springs Pipeline is already set to serve the residents of Sunset Canyon on the Travis-Hays county line. The five new plats, which total more than 3,000 living units, are clustered southwest of Austin in Hays County near the intersection of FM 1826 and FM 967, just south of US 290.

The developments in question are Rutherford Rim and Greenhawe (977 living units), Rutherford West (312 living units), Krasovec (480 living units) and Cypress (1,250 living units.) The agreements are based on actions approved by the board last September. Each of the developments received the required US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) approval in order to receive treated water from the LCRA pipeline.

The agreements are linked to a base charge calculated from the number of units proposed by the developer. Cypress-Hays L.P, for instance, would pay a base rate of $7,500 per month for its development. Beyond that, the developers have agreed to an annual reservation fee of $160, which would be paid for each yet-to-be-built unit.

The volume-based rate would be $1.60 per thousand gallons. The developer is also committed to a pre-designated acre-feet raw water contract. Issuance of the raw water contract would also include a review of the developer’s non-point source pollution abatement and conservation plans. Execution of the contracts means a commitment of 1,515 acre-feet per year of firm-water supply. The SOS Alliance and the Friendship Alliance have filed suit against Dripping Springs, Cypress and MAK Foster Ranch LP to stop their proposed developments.

City Clerk impressed with county's measures to protect votes

County Clerk Dana de Beauvoir said a Dell laptop computer stolen from the Northcross Mall Early Voting location shows that her insistence on tight security for voting machines was not a mistake. De Beauvoir said the laptop, which is used only to connect to the voter registration database, has nothing to do with recording or tabulating votes. She also called the thief or thieves “stupid. You can’t exactly fence a county-labeled laptop. She noted that the Austin Police Department, the Travis County Sheriff’s Office and Northcross Mall security are investigating.

De Beauvoir said the actual voting equipment cannot be stolen because, “Each night law enforcement officers pick up the electronic ballot box from each location and lock them in a vault and deliver them the next morning.”

City Clerk Shirley Brown said, “We have been impressed by their level of security. Who would have imagined that anybody would break into a place where voting equipment was stored?” She said when the precautions were first outlined to her, “I thought that was overkill,” but she no longer thinks so. Brown said the county had addressed every security issue that has arisen around the nation in planning security for the ballot boxes. “I don’t think we could ask for any better than what we’re seeing.”

Brown told In Fact Daily that more voters had taken advantage of Early Voting by the end of the day Tuesday than had voted early during the whole time allotted for Early Voting last year. “The total for the entire time last year was 7,449 in-person voters . . . I think we’ll at least double what we did last year. What’s sad about that is it’s still just a little over one percent of the registered voters.”

As of last night, 8,585 voters had cast their votes, which is 1.55 percent of the city’s 555,065 registered voters. During the 2002 city election, only nine percent of those eligible—42,431 persons—bothered to vote.

Katz v. Wynn . . . Deli owner and mayoral candidate Marc Katz yesterday complained that almost none of the $25 million dollars in bond money approved by voters for the Waller Creek Tunnel project has been spent on the project—which is now projected to cost at least $50 million. He said the city is wasting money, having paid almost $5 million dollars in interest payments without making progress on the project. “Waller Creek isn’t flowing, but the red ink on this project surely is,” said Katz. He noted that Council Member Will Wynn owns property at 701 E. 6th Street on the shore of Waller Creek and asked whether Wynn had voted on any items having to do with tunnel funding. A check with City Clerk Shirley Brown showed that there have been no Council votes on the tunnel since Wynn took office in 2000, although the Council has heard a briefing on the matter. Wynn said he purchased the historic property, which he refurbished, in early 1998. Since the bonds were approved, Wynn said, “There’s been a bunch of design work and more detailed estimates of the costs,” which was bad news. He said he “has challenged whoever was the engineer” who did the original cost estimates to come forward. Wynn said his property has already appreciated because of the renovation and the value would not be likely to change because of a tunnel behind it, but said the City Attorney had advised him there would not be a conflict in his listening to the briefing. If a matter comes up that calls for a vote, Wynn said, he will ask the City Attorney to advise him . . . Mayor supports Austin Community College proposals . . . Mayor Gus Garcia came out in support of the two ACC proposals on the May 3rd ballot during Tuesday's meeting of the South Austin Culture Club. “The college is under-funded,” Garcia said. It's an economic development issue. People that bring businesses here, they want to have folks, and the college is very good at training people for the workforce” . . . On the other side . . . Mayoral candidate Brad Meltzer has once again criticized ACC for asking for the tax increase. In a press release issued yesterday, Meltzer said, “Foreclosures in Austin have tripled in the past two years. We have the highest cost of living and property taxes in the state. We are losing jobs. Businesses are moving to the suburbs. Our economy is faltering. There could not be a worse time to ask taxpayers for more money” . . . River flow question on committee agenda . . . The Senate Committee on Natural Resources will consider SB1374 today, a proposal that would prevent groups like the San Marcos River Foundation (SMRF) from getting permits to preserve instream flows to protect fish and other aquatic life in rivers, bays and estuaries. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality dismissed a permit application by the SMRF for a water right permit to preserve the Guadalupe and San Marcos Rivers. The Foundation said the permit was needed to ensure sufficient freshwater supply for San Antonio Bay. SB1374 would enact a moratorium on granting of instream water rights until Aug. 2005 and set up a commission to study the impact of such permits. SMRF is expected to testify against the legislation.

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

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