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Wynn to ask Council to

Thursday, July 10, 2003 by

Put off anti-smoking regs

Mayor wants matter postponed until January Mayor Will Wynn and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman were on the losing end of votes to enact a near total ban on smoking in public places last month, but the make-up of the Council has changed with the departure of the smoking ordinance’s sponsor, Mayor Gus Garcia, and the election of Brewster McCracken. Wynn, Goodman and McCracken are listed on next week’s preliminary Council agenda as co-sponsoring an item that would change the effective date of the ordinance from Sept. 1 to January 2, 2004. Council Member Raul Alvarez also voted against the ordinance and it seems reasonable to assume he would support the change.

Goodman won what seemed a small victory last month in gaining Council approval for an air quality task force, which will have its initial meeting at 6pm tonight in Room 304 of City Hall. Participation in the task force is open to all interested stakeholders,

Wynn also has put an item on next week’s agenda to ask that task force to study the effects of smoking on indoor air quality. When that matter is approved, the Council will have an opportunity to give the task force a new deadline for reporting back to the Council. It seems unlikely that they would have been able to come up with recommendations—other than what opponents wanted when the matter was considered in May and June—before the September 1 implementation date.

McCracken told In Fact Daily that he has not yet fully studied the ordinance, but added that he has heard from people on both sides of the issue. “People are looking for a compromise,” he said. “A wise person told me, ‘Either way this comes out you’re going to have a clear winner and a clear loser. That’s not good.’” McCracken said he agrees with that assessment and hopes a compromise can be found.

Planning Commission allows Subdivision, despite protests

Commissioners had no choice but to follow the law

In spite of neighborhood opposition, members of the Planning Commission last night approved the subdivision of land in the MLK Neighborhood to allow construction of eight affordable housing units. Area residents complained that the new units would not be consistent with the character of the existing neighborhood, but commissioners pointed to their legal duty to approve subdivision requests that meet statutory requirements.

Developers Christopher Robertson and Chris Krager needed the subdivision to build eight homes on five existing lots at Astor Place. “Four of the units will be sold under the city’s Smart Housing program,” said Robertson. “Four are available to anybody . . . but they’re still what would be deemed affordable by most people.”

Some neighbors objected to the added population the development would bring. “I really oppose having eight lots being constructed from what is currently a five-lot area,” said Exalton Delco. “We have no objection to the five places . . . but with eight lots, the population density will be unacceptable.”

But most of the objections were directed against the design of the project. Alvin Patterson told commissioners he did not believe the new homes would be an appropriate addition to the area since they would be narrower, two stories on piers and would use different exterior materials than the brick found on most surrounding homes. Other neighborhood residents requested that commissioners take the area’s heritage into account when making their decision. “This is a very historic neighborhood. The persons who live there are some of the most prominent Afro-Americans in the city of Austin,” said Freddie Dixon. “I do feel that what’s being put there is very much an insult, gentrification and a disrespect for the Afro-American community.”

Other long-time residents agreed that the new buildings and new residents would change the neighborhood’s historic character. “We’ve been living across the street from the proposed project for 36 years,” said Dr. Charles Akins. “It is important that the integrity of our neighborhood be maintained. Yes, we are interested in affordable housing. But we want the compatibility of some beauty in our neighborhood. East Austin deserves it, just as the other parts of the city.”

Commissioners, while sympathetic to the complaints, reminded neighbors that they were required to approve the re-subdivision since it met all requirements. “I hope that the architects will work with the neighbors to address the concerns and build some goodwill, because those that are buying the product in this neighborhood will eventually become neighbors with those who have been there for a very long time,” said Chair Lydia Ortiz. The motion to approve the re-subdivision passed on a vote of 6-0, with Commissioners Cynthia Medlin, Rhonda Pratt and Niyanta Spelman absent.

Judge Herman starts campaign

For Travis County hospital district

Judge sees effect of lack of mental health funding

With legislation in place, Probate Judge Guy Herman is making the rounds of local civic organizations, looking for support for a May 2004 election for a Travis County Hospital District.

On Tuesday night, Herman visited the South Austin Democrats—a group already sympathetic to his cause. Herman’s mantra is to the point and oft-repeated, “We need a hospital district.” To Herman, the question is not whether Travis County voters would pass a hospital district, but how fast they will do so.

Herman told the Democrats that he wants to see the election next May, to help defray costs. City Manager Toby Futrell has also said that she expects a May election.If the city and county held an election in November, the two entities would both have to pay all the election costs. But if it is in May, it will be paired with elections for the Austin Independent School District and Austin Community College. Herman is convinced county voters will pass it.

“This community is willing to pay more in taxes if you can show them what it can do, and that it’s the right thing to do,” said Herman, who is often faced with a lack of beds for mentally ill patients. “The SOS Ordinance was the right thing to do. The creation of the Austin Community College was the right thing to do. This community is willing to support a hospital district because it will be accountable and the right thing to do.”

To the liberals, Herman says the county jail is the biggest mental health facility in Travis County. Using a jail as a form of treatment—something Austin police are forced to do to make sure the mentally ill do not harm themselves or others—he maintains is wrong.

To the conservatives, Herman says it’s time to spread the taxes around. City residents are bearing 95 percent of the cost of indigent healthcare in the county. It’s time for Travis County residents outside the city to step up to the plate. He does not promise that taxes will drop, but he does pledge to spread the cost of healthcare to all.

If the six cents city residents spend on health care were more evenly distributed across the city, it would generate another $6 million for healthcare throughout the county. He also pointed out that the city, and Seton, had failed to bill outlying counties for their indigent healthcare services until recently. According to Herman, Williamson County had set aside indigent healthcare funding for Travis County, but had not paid, until recently, because they had been billed.

The hospital district passed as a last-minute amendment to the state’s healthcare agency reorganization plan. Herman said. Herman said concerns by former County Commissioner and current State Rep. Todd Baxter that the county would be double-dipping for healthcare costs were ill-founded. State law will eliminate most county and city healthcare spending once a hospital district is created.

Herman, whose job it is to commit those who are mentally ill and need mental health treatment, has a sense of urgency about the issue since the state is cutting mental health services. Mental health benefits under the state’s health insurance program for children have been cut. And local facilities are so full that those who are mentally ill or need dependency treatment are shipped to facilities in other parts of the state, Herman said.

Because Travis County does not have a hospital district—unlike most major counties in the state—no one has made long-term healthcare plans for the city. For years, planning was left to an assistant city manager with numerous other obligations. Because of that, and a lack of comparable funding from the county, the city-owned Brackenridge has only half the trauma beds needed for a metropolitan area the size of Austin, Herman said.

“If we had a major trauma situation, there is no way we would have adequate facilities,” Herman said. “That’s dangerous for every single one of us.”

A hospital district provides professional planning and accountability, Herman said. Herman is only required to put a petition of 100 signatures together to call the hospital district election. He told the South Austin Democrats his current petition had expired. He will start gathering new signatures in January and asked for their support.

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

Doggett reacts to negative vote . . . After losing a vote in the House Judiciary Committee that would have required the Justice Department to turn over information on its investigation of use of federal employees to help track the Killer D’s, Congressman Lloyd Doggett released the following statement. “It is bad enough for puppetmaster Tom DeLay to pull the redistricting strings of Texas legislators, it is worse if G-men, U.S. Attorneys and U.S. Marshals have also become puppets to political masters. Today’s vote means the cover-up continues; it is a victory for Tom DeLay but another loss for the truth.” According to the Associated Press, the committee voted 19-15, along party lines, to recommend against the resolution . . . Sunshine camp celebrates . . . The Young Men’s Business League of Austin (YMBL) and KB Home will be celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Austin Sunshine Camps at a luncheon today at the Zilker Park Camp House. The camps provide an overnight summer camp experience for more than 800 disadvantaged children every summer, while the YMBL provides mentoring throughout the rest of the year. Mayor Will Wynn and YMBL president Clayton Bullock will speak about the program at 12:15pm. Andy Erben of KB Home, a major sponsor of the camp, will be on hand to discuss the company’s involvement with the organization . . . Conservatives oppose marriage amendment . . . The conservative Republican web site http://gopusa.com is currently polling on the following question: “ Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) said that he supported an amendment to the Constitution that would ban any marriage in the United States except a union of a man and a woman. Would you support such a ban?” As of last night, 39 percent of respondents said yes, while 60 percent answered no . . . Cancelled . . . The board of Austin Women’s Hospital (at Brackenridge), previously scheduled to meet today, has been cancelled . . . Coming next week . . . The first Council meeting since the swearing-in of Will Wynn as Mayor will be next Thursday—and it could prove strenuous. The preliminary agenda is 40 pages long. The first item to be considered in executive session is Hyde Park Baptist Church v. City of Austin, concerning the construction of a parking garage near 39th Street and Avenue D. The Council will also have an opportunity to talk to attorneys about the Lowe’s Home Centers suit against the city over jurisdiction and rules for property near Sunset Valley, as well as legal issues related to the current session of the Legislature. All of that will happen behind closed doors, but there’s plenty of opportunity for public participation on other matters . . . Groundbreaking Part 2 . . . After getting rained out last month, Whole Foods will hold a tree-planting ceremony at 10am today at Sixth and Lamar to mark the beginning of construction on its newest store. Construction on the new 80,000 square-foot building is scheduled to be completed by early 2005.

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