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Anti-tax group opposes hospital district

Thursday, March 25, 2004 by

Judge Herman disputes claims of Save Our Taxpayers

The anti-tax lobby is alive and well in Travis County as the Save Our Taxpayers group yesterday announced its opposition to the upcoming hospital district referendum in May.

Save Our Taxpayers, led by software engineer Don Zimmerman, is a fairly new opposition group. The only other campaign Save Our Taxpayers has launched to date was its last-minute opposition to the Austin Community College District bond proposal on last May’s ballot. Wednesday the group announced its willingness to fight the proposed Travis County Hospital District.

Ringed by local media, Zimmerman and others from Save Our Taxpayers took the microphone in the Travis County Commissioners Court chambers to say that taxpayers were the last group in Travis County without protectors. If Save Our Springs could fight to protect the habitat of the Barton Springs salamander, then Save Our Taxpayers could fight to protect the habitat of the Travis County taxpayer, Zimmerman said.

Travis County already is one of the most heavily taxed areas in the state, Zimmerman said. People who have lived 20, 30, even 40 years in their homes are being forced out because they can’t afford their property taxes, Zimmerman said. The only way to reverse the trend is to vote against another property tax, he said.

“There is something Travis County taxpayers can do about the absurd level of property taxation in Travis County and Austin City: they can simply vote ‘no’ on May 15 to yet another property tax,” Zimmerman said. “California wildfires never leave a home they can consume and politicians will never say ‘enough’ on taxation.”

Zimmerman and others outlined arguments against the hospital district proposal. One of their biggest concerns that the taxes peeled off local jurisdictions and sent to the local health care district—7.1 cents in the city and 1.3 cents in the county—would only return in slow creeping increases.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty joined Zimmerman at the podium for an impromptu speech, acknowledging the county’s obligation to address indigent health care but suggesting the county should look at other options before creating a new taxing entity.

“I would like to find other ways to work on this issue other than ad valorem tax,” Daugherty said. “I am against lopping another tax on the back of taxpayers any time that we have another issue. Every time, we decide what we need to do is to tax people.”

Daugherty was also opposed to the May election date. May elections turn out far fewer voters than the general election in November and tend to favor special interest groups, he said. The Republican commissioner said it would be “a crying shame” if 10 percent of the voters made the decision for all of Travis County.

Daugherty wanted a mechanism to go back and review the hospital district progress, possibly a sunset process if the hospital district was not accomplishing its goals.

Zimmerman argued that the hospital district had no way to limit taxes and no way to include surrounding counties. Nothing in the legislation under House Bill 2292 required the city and county to decrease taxes permanently, and Zimmerman predicted the Travis County Hospital District taxes would rise in tandem with city and county taxes.

The county hospital district proposal also includes no provision to incorporate surrounding counties, Zimmerman said. More than 50 percent of the health care provided by Brackenridge Hospital goes to patients in outlying counties that have no real obligation to pay for that care. Yet the provisions for the Travis County Hospital District approved under House Bill 2292 made no allowance for a multi-county hospital district.

Hence, the current district proposal failed to address the situation initially identified as the real reason for the creation of a hospital district, Zimmerman said.

Judge Guy Herman, who spearheaded the hospital district proposal and floated the first petition, was sitting in the audience and bristled at the description of the Travis County Hospital District as simply “another government effort to get your money.” Herman said the desire for a health care district was his, not the city or county’s, and he predicted that voters would share his views about the need for a health care district.

Herman was the one who pushed for the May election, saying he had waited long enough for the city and county to move forward on what he considers to be a critical health care situation, especially regarding mental health care services. The judge agreed to hold off on his petition drive for a hospital district two years ago while the city and county came to some agreement about how the hospital district would operate.

Herman disputed Save Our Taxpayers’ claim that the hospital district was limited to Travis County. Under the legislation, any of the outlying counties could join the hospital district under a memorandum of understanding, Herman said. Herman said outlying counties are willing and have paid their fair share for indigent health care as dictated under state law. As the need grows, however, outlying counties will see an even greater need to find more comprehensive health care services and expanded trauma care, he said.

Proponents of the Travis County Hospital District have argued that the district is necessary to address the burgeoning health needs of Central Texas. Herman says it’s a way to put health care “in its proper place,” by expanding trauma care and adding to minimal mental health services. It can also direct the flow of money toward expanded clinic hours and preventative care in the community so that desperate patients are not forced to use the far more expensive option of the local emergency room, Herman said.

Other speakers against the hospital district said the indigent health care issue was an issue in the City of Austin deciding to reprioritize its budget. Ed Burke, a retired IBM engineer, suggested that the city ought to go back to the Legislature and admit that a rail initiative had failed and that the full 1-cent sales tax for Capital Metro was a mistake. A half-cent sales tax could be reclaimed for use toward a hospital district, Burke said.

Burke said proponents of the district had stated that the tax rate would rapidly escalate to 25 cents, and then be followed by even more increases. Herman disputed that claim, saying that most hospital districts spent no more than a third of their allotted taxing authority. Some had spent up to 25 cents. In Travis County, the initial estimate is 7 cents.

Others opponents, like Richard Relph, suggested that a hospital district had not solved the indigent health care issue in other cities like Houston and Dallas. Hospital districts exist in those cities, yet the problem of indigent health care continues. Setting up the hospital district would simply distract the region from considering creative solutions.

Both Zimmerman and failed Council candidate Steve Adams suggested that a Travis County Hospital District might encourage more illegal immigration into the city from people who wanted to take advantage of free health care offered by Travis County.

Herman still predicted success for the initiative, saying that the hospital district can be a creative, efficient choice for health care in the county. The district, as it is structured, will pick up the overhead for both city and county services and increase efficiency of those health care and mental health care services offered in Travis County.

More research needed for demolition permit

The owner of property at 3010 Guadalupe agreed Monday night to give city staff more time to research the history of the building on the site before proceeding with plans for demolition. The building most recently housed Ruth’s Chris Steak House, which has moved, and owner Peter Lamy has filed for a demolition permit to remove the existing structure and replace it with mixed-use development. While the building has been modified significantly over the years, part of the structure dates back to at least 1905.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky told members of the Historic Landmark Commission that he had been able to identify numerous uses for the structure over the past 99 years, along with numerous modifications. “The building has had several additions to it of unknown dates,” he said. “We’re not really sure how much of the original building is left here and we’re not really sure of the date of the original building.” The earliest known use was as a saloon, followed by periods of use as a grocery store, appliance store, cafe, tavern, general store and restaurant. He concluded that there was not yet enough evidence to recommend that the city initiate a historic zoning case on the property, but he would recommend that the owner consider an adaptive reuse of its historic elements.

Architect John Nyfeler, who is working with the property owner on plans for redevelopment, told commissioners that the original 20’ by 50’ wooden structure had been compromised by renovations on two sides, and that the limited work done so far to uncover the original elements showed that they were leaning by several degrees. He warned that the original building, when the newer elements are removed, might not be structurally sound by itself.

Nyfeler stressed that any new construction on the site would comply with the North University Neighborhood Plan’ s recommendations for that section of Guadalupe. “That would include placing the buildings on the property line, taking the access from one point only on Guadalupe and the style of development that is contemplated is consistent with that recommended in the neighborhood plan,” he said. “That is, retail on the ground floor and then residential development above that.”

Lamy confirmed that complying with the neighborhood’s wishes would be a high priority, but that he was not in a hurry to begin work on the new structure. “I’m willing to work with y’all any way I can . . . if you need another month, that’s fine,” he said. “I’m willing to work with the neighborhood. If I’m going to adhere to what the neighborhood would like to see, which is mixed-use development, then I think the building needs to come down. If it doesn’t come down then we’re back to a saloon. It’s just a matter of what y’all want to do. If you want another month, let’s do it.”

The commission voted 8-0 to delay consideration of the demolition permit until the next meeting in April. That will give city staff more time to research a more precise date for the original construction of the building.

Hohengarten to take the bench soon . . . When Gisela Triana resigned as Judge of County Court at Law No. 5 to run for district court, it created a vacancy on that bench. Travis County Commissioners this week appointed Nancy Hohengarten, who won the Democratic Primary race for that seat, to fill that vacancy. The court approved Hohengarten on a 4-1 vote, with Republican Commissioner Gerald Daugherty voting no. Hohengarten will face Republican attorney Angelita Mendoza-Waterhouse in the November election. A former prosecutor and defense attorney, Hohengarten said she would be sworn in as soon as commissioners approve her bond—a routine matter that should be handled at next Tuesday’s meeting . . . Today’s City Council meeting . . . The Council can be expected to approve a number of routine but hefty contracts for water and flood-related issues, transportation and fleet services. Austin-based C. C. Carlton Industries, Ltd. is the recommended contractor for the construction of the Walnut Creek-Wells Branch Flood and Erosion Control Regional Pond project. Carlton offered the lowest of 10 bids at about $2.23 million . . . Laughlin-Thyssen, Ltd. of Houston is recommended for construction of the Little Walnut/Buttermilk-Colony Creek South Wastewater Improvements Project. Funding for that project is more than $2.4 million . . . The city is acquiring a little more than 13 acres for the airport noise mitigation program at a cost of $60,525 . . . The Council will also consider moving funds for one full-time position from the Municipal Court Clerk’ s budget to the City Auditor’s budget at the request of Council Member Brewster McCracken and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman. The Council is also posted to take up an item on pay and benefits for the Municipal Court Clerk . . . The Hospital District Steering Committee is scheduled to brief the Council on the proposed Travis County Hospital District at 2pm . . . The Planning Commission has recommended that the sticky question of whether to ban front and side yard parking be an option for neighborhood plans. That item is on the agenda as an amendment to the Neighborhood Plan Combining District Ordinance . . . In addition to requests from the Champion sisters for more allowable traffic from their property, (See In Fact Daily, March 23, 2004) the Council will hear from proponents and opponents of the Brentwood/Highland Neighborhood Plan . . . A public hearing and vote on the contract with the Austin Police Association is scheduled for 6pm.

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