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In Fact Daily will take next week off…..

Friday, March 12, 2004 by

Travis County voters set record

Democrats, Republicans offer spin on numbers

Travis County set a new record for primary turnout, according to Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir, who said unofficial vote totals show that 92,065 voters cast a ballot in Tuesday’s primary elections. Those totals may also reflect renewed enthusiasm among Democrats.

“Travis County voters overcame confusion created by new boundary lines and polling places and turned out in record numbers,” DeBeauvoir said. “People went the extra mile—sometimes literally—to cast a ballot in this election.” DeBeauvoir said that 17.4 percent of registered voters participated in the election. The 2000 presidential primary’s brought out 15.7 percent. The percentage record in Travis County was in 1996, when 19.99 percent of those registered went to the polls.

In this week’s balloting, Democrats accounted for 63,916 voters, or 69 percent of those casting ballots. Republicans turned out 28,149 voters, about 31 percent of the total. That is far cry from the 2000 primary, when Republicans were highly motivated to support then-Governor George Bush for his party’s nomination. Four years ago, 58 percent of March voters—47,157 people—participated in the Republican primary.

Scott Ozmun, chair of the Travis County Democratic Party, saw good news in this week’s election results. He called attention to the fact that Democratic candidates “outpolled Republicans in every race where there was a primary for both political parties. Of those races, almost all of them had at least 50 percent more Democratic votes than their Republican counterparts.”

Ozmun said his party is energized this year. “I think there’s a lot of pent-up anger,” Ozmun said. “People who might have been independents are becoming Democrats in light of what’s been happening nationally and also locally with redistricting.”

Ozmun said redistricting might be a factor in three races. The Democratic vote total in the hotly contested Congressional District 25 race—which Congressman Lloyd Doggett won—was nearly nine to one over the Republican total. That district is widely considered to be 70-percent Democratic. “Two Travis County incumbent Republican State Representatives were put on notice . . . that their jobs are up-for-grabs,” Ozmun said. Democrat Kelly White, former executive director of Safe Place, garnered 1800 votes more than Republican Todd Baxter. Both were running unopposed. Mark Strama, Democratic candidate for State Representative District 50, received over 472 votes more than all three Republican candidates combined—including incumbent Rep. Jack Stick.

Tina Benkiser, chair of the Texas Republican Party, retorts, “Clearly Republicans have the momentum headed into the fall elections.” She draws her cheer from the fact that the Secretary of State, Republican Geoffrey Connor, had projected that 1 million Democrats and 700,000 Republicans would vote in the primaries.

Benkiser says the GOP hit 98 percent of that goal statewide, while Democrats brought out only 84 percent of what had been expected.

Jones resigns from city Environmental Board

After 13 years, health reasons prompt resignation

Environmental activist Tim Jones, a warrior in the battle against pollution of Austin’s waterways—especially Barton Springs—has resigned from the city Environmental Board for health reasons. Jones resigned abruptly last month, causing consternation among fellow board members and to Council Member Daryl Slusher, who had consistently reappointed him to his post. After resigning, Jones then asked Slusher to reappoint him again, which the Council member did last week.

Jones has an autoimmune disease requiring medication that he describes as “causing me to experience sudden tiredness, memory loss, mood swings and feelings of distress and anger.” He described his feelings in a letter to Slusher and attributed his earlier resignation from the board as reflective of the medicine’s effects rather than a reaction to any events. Jones has served on the Environmental Board for the past 13 years. He wrote to Slusher, “I have tried to honor the request of my colleagues to stay on, thus it is with great regret that I must refuse your generous reappointment. Let me assure you this does not mean I am retiring as an environmental advocate. To the contrary, I’m actively pursuing measures to improve my health to ensure that you all will be hearing from me on such matters for a long, long time.”

Slusher replied, “It is with regret that I accept your resignation from the Environmental Board. This is certainly the end of an era. You leave a gaping hole to be filled . . . You have been a major force in defining and shaping an era in the fight to preserve Austin’s environment . . . I know you have many more years ahead of working to guard Austin’s natural resources. You will just be playing a slightly different role now.”

Boosters launch health care district campaign

County residents would pay more; city residents would not

A host of elected officials and business leaders stood shoulder to shoulder outside Brackenridge Hospital Thursday carrying signs reading, “Save Lives – Save Money,” as they launched the public education campaign in support of a new healthcare district for Travis County. The measure will be on the May 15 ballot, and supporters of the proposal to dedicate specific funds for healthcare are now taking their message to voters after years of work behind the scenes.

Many elected officials and representatives of local hospitals who worked last year to get the Texas Legislature to pass the measure authorizing the election attended Thursday’s announcement. Over the next five weeks, members of the Healthcare District Steering Committee plan to make their case about the need for the district to help relieve overcrowding in Austin’s emergency rooms and provide clarity about healthcare funding.

“Hospitals and hospital systems that provide safety-net services and trauma care are not adequately funded,” said Dr. Pat Crocker, director of emergency medicine at Brackenridge Hospital. “Austin has grown, but Austin hospitals have not been able to keep pace with the growth. The capability to maintain all of the specialists on-call to be able to take care of you in an emergency has been stretched to the limit. Many have taken the position that the creation of a hospital district is a problem for the uninsured . . . that they will be fine because they have an insurance policy. Please understand that this is not the case. The problem threatens the healthcare of all of us. If the system is allowed to collapse, the system will be here for none of us.”

Under the proposal facing voters May 15, the hospital district would have taxing authority. Because City of Austin residents currently pay more of their tax dollars for healthcare than Travis County residents the bill for county residents under the new system would likely go up. For the owner of an average home, the difference would amount to about $92 per year. But under the new proposal, the city and county would be required to adjust their tax rates accordingly.

“In my view, there are two ways to get this done,” said Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe. “We always begin the budget process by determining what the effective tax rate is. We know we spend about 1.28 cents of that tax rate on healthcare. We could simply apply the percentage to the effective tax rate and transfer that amount to the district. We know that would be about $7.7 million.” The other option, Biscoe said, would be to go through the normal budget process and pull out the funds allocated for healthcare for the new district.

Local business leaders are also behind the effort to create a new healthcare district. Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce Chairman Rick Burciaga said that while it might seem natural for the business organization to oppose a new taxing entity, the Chamber was supporting the May 15 referendum.

“It is a bit different for us to speak on behalf of a new tax,” he said. “Some would say we are an over-taxed society . . . but we are here today to support improvement of the health-care delivery system in Travis County. We do consider this an important first step toward creating a well-planned, efficiently-managed service.” If voters approve the measure, Burciaga said the Chamber would keep a close watch on the district to ensure that strict financial controls were in place, and would also work with state lawmakers to study a multi-county healthcare district.

Supporters have created a political action committee to receive donations to help the campaign called, “ Citizens for Central Texas Health.” They have also established a web site at http://www.healthytraviscounty.com and plan to provide speakers to various community, business and neighborhood groups to discuss the proposal..

Council allocates funds for film industry study

An outside consultant will have a little more than three months to make recommendations to the City Council about policies that could help spur development of the local film industry. Council Members heard from local filmmakers and officials with the Texas Film Commission about the economic benefit of the industry and its growth over the past ten years.

That growth, which has lead to the production of dozens of major feature films and TV projects in Central Texas, has come in part thanks to losses by other Texas cities. Tom Copeland with the Texas Film Commission pointed to the failure of Dallas to retain its film industry in the 1980s and 1990s as an example of what could happen to Austin. “If you went back into our files from 1983 to 1986 . . . everybody wanted to film in Dallas,” he said. “The City of Dallas never did a thing to promote it. They never helped. They never facilitated. They never cut any fees. They never really embraced the business. As a result, in a few years, it started to dwindle. The business flourished, but because nobody helped it out, it found another place to go.”

Copeland reminded the Council that film producers have always been conscious of the bottom line, and places that offered tax breaks or other financial incentives had a distinct advantage in recruiting new business. “But the real incentive of shooting in Austin, Texas is the individuals who live and work in this community,” he said. “Without a doubt, I think this is one of the finest working crews anywhere in the United States. I realize these are tough times, but if there’s any way you can make it any simpler to shoot in this town and any more economical . . . I’m certainly willing to work with you any way I can.”

Council Member Brewster McCracken called on the Council to adopt policies to promote local filmmakers. “It’s great that ‘The Alamo’ came to town to film . . . I think it’s a bigger deal that Elizabeth Avellan and Robert Rodriguez made ‘Once Upon a Time in Mexico.’ Even though they didn’t make it here in Austin, it is our local filmmakers exporting Austin culture nationally. I believe that what we should be looking at in this 100-day initiative is not importing movies, which seems to be the strategy of virtually every other city in the nation . . . Our policy focus needs to be on growing our local film sector.”

By enhancing Austin’s cultural landscape, McCracken said, the film industry could have an impact beyond the jobs created by new productions. “The emergence of the Austin film sector is probably our community’s greatest success story since high tech,” he said. “But it’s not just about dollars and cents. A successful, vibrant film sector helps our national image.”

The Council voted 7-0 to spend $25,000 on an outside consultant to perform an economic impact study of the film industry and to recommend ways to promote the local film sector. That report should be finished by the end of June.

Council agrees to adjustments to Domain contract

The City Council approved amendments to the contract with Endeavor Real Estate Group relating to tax breaks and obligations of both the city and the developer in connection with The Domain yesterday.

Redevelopment Services Director Sue Edwards said the responsibilities of the parties remain the same as they were under the original contract. “It was a good agreement as it was, but because we have not enacted a (Chapter) 380 agreement before, we wanted to make sure that there was no question about what we were saying.” She said changes were made largely “to clarify what was being said.”

For example, the $1 million fund for small local business assistance will be Endeavor’s responsibility. Assistant City Attorney David Lloyd said the amendment made it clear that the fund was to be provided “up front” by Endeavor. That was always the intention, Edwards said, but someone could read the contract to say that the money was coming from the city. Drafters of the amendments also clarified when tax money would be paid back to the developer—on or before October 1 for taxes collected by April 1. The city has agreed to return 80 percent of the sales tax revenues generated by the development during its first five years and 20 percent for the following 15 years. However, the Council cannot make a decision that binds future Councils to appropriate the money for Endeavor. A clause was inserted into the contract making that clear.

Finally, the Council approved an amendment stating that the parties had no intention of creating a joint venture by agreeing to the contract. The apparent purpose of the amendment is to shield the city from any possible liability in connection with construction or operation of the project.

Council Member Daryl Slusher voted against the motion, noting that he had opposed the original proposal and would continue to do so. Slusher said that since the deal was first inked, the world’s largest shopping center developer, Simon Properties, Inc., had signed onto the project. “And now, we’re basically subsidizing them. So, I won’t be able to support this,” he said.

The total value of the city’s investment throughout the 20-year period is capped at $25 million. Construction will have to begin within four years of signing the contract—which occurred last May—and the development will have to provide 1,100 full-time jobs. Local businessman Brian Rodgers has filed suit against Endeavor and the City of Austin, challenging the city’s right to award such incentives.

Looking ahead . . . In Fact Daily will take off next week for spring break . . . Zoning . . . The City Council postponed consideration of historic zoning for the three unnamed houses on West Lynn Street yesterday. They also postponed hearing a request for historic zoning on a house at 1204 Travis Heights. City Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky has recommended against historic designation in both cases. The Council approved, without discussion, historic zoning on the Harris-Carter House at 603 Carolyn Avenue. The other cases will return next month, presumably after the Task Force on Historic Preservation has made its recommendations . . . The Council also approved rezoning for Colorado Crossing, 6800 Burleson Road, from LI-CO-Neighborhood Plan to LI-PDA-Neighborhood Plan. Steve Drenner was on hand for his clients, Missile Partners Associates and Bergstrom Partners, L.P., but was not asked to comment. The Council also approved, without discussion, rezoning of 2859 SH 71 East from I-single-family-2 to GR-CO, as recommended by the Zoning and Platting Commission . . . Council Member Danny Thomas appointed Roger Chan to the Water and Wastewater Commission. Mayor Will Wynn reappointed Jennifer Piskun Johnson to the Ethics Review Commission. Timy Baranoff, Lila Carl, Anita Uphaus and Debra Keith-Thompson were reappointed to the Child Care Council by a consensus of the Council. Orlando Smith and Laura Tansey were reappointed by consensus to the Human Rights Commission. Wynn also reappointed Carl Tepper to the Urban Transportation Commission and Norman Kieke to the Mayor’s Committee for People with Disabilities. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman reappointed Angela Gillen to the Music Commission . . . Beal honored . . . LCRA General Manager Joe Beal has won a number of awards for both his professional achievements and personal volunteer activities. Texas Tech University named Beal as one of the university’s 2004 Distinguished Engineers. The Boy Scouts Capitol Area Council also recently awarded Beal the highest award that can be given at the council level. Beal accepted the Silver Beaver Award for his exemplary Boy Scouts volunteer efforts.

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