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Bare bones rail plan set for November ballot

Tuesday, August 31, 2004 by

Critics plan to mount another anti-rail offensive

The Capital Metro Board of Directors took its first conservative step toward commuter rail on Monday night, calling a referendum in November that will require no additional debt and provide a $60 million route on established track from Leander to the Convention Center.

Board Chairman Lee Walker was pleased with the board's decision. "We've got to do something, and this is the best available answer," he said. One by one, other board members spoke up to support the rail proposal prior to their vote. "If we do something, we'll be criticized," said Board Member John Treviño, acknowledging the pressure both from those who wanted the agency to consider extending the line and those who are opposed to the project. "But if we do nothing, we will be condemned."

The measure going to the voters for consideration is the bare-bones proposal recommended by Capital Metro staff. It will cost $60 million, include nine stops and utilize only the existing track between Leander and the Austin Convention Center.

Supporters of the additional lines, like Jim Walker of the Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition and Charlie Betts of the Downtown Austin Alliance, were disappointed but not surprised. Walker told In Fact Daily that everyone around RMMA loves the Mueller Master Plan, which is a transit-oriented development. But he said he could understand it might “be difficult communicating that passion to the entire voting area. So I can see why it would be easier to bring it back later. But that said, I can't help but be a little bit disappointed.” Those in the coalition are accustomed to problems though; it’s a part of their history. So, for them, this is not a big setback.

“What I’m realizing is that protecting this master plan and making this happen is never going to end until the last nail is driven," Walker said. He pledged to stay involved with Capital Metro and work with both the DAA and ConnectAustin, a group that supports a downtown trolley line. Betts also said his organization would continue to support Capital Metro’s plans.

Council Member Daryl Slusher discussed conditions for supporting the election by perennial mass transit critics Commissioner Gerald Daugherty and cohort Jim Skaggs. Slusher used the term "diplomatic" numerous times to describe the discussions. Slusher said he could support three of the conditions suggested by Daugherty .The commissioner requested that the project not require any bonded indebtedness, which has been Capital Metro's stated position as well. Daugherty wanted light rail to be excluded, and it is not mentioned in the " All Systems Go" plan. Daugherty also called for the rail line to be limited to the tracks currently on the ground between Leander and downtown, which is also part of the "All Systems Go" plan.

As for Daugherty’s other demands, Slusher was open to coming up with realistic benchmarks for performance and accountability but he could not agree to the demand that the rail line be discontinued if certain standards are not met within a specific timeframe. Slusher said he could not approve a proposal that would tie the hands of future boards.

Slusher was quick to add that he wanted to thank Daugherty and Skaggs for negotiating in good faith with the Capital Metro board. He added that he hoped both sides could continue to work together "as we get on down the road . . . or track."

After the vote, Daugherty indicated that he would again be opposing a rail proposition. "I think that's unfortunate because all of our resolutions revolved around one common theme, and that was accountability," he said.

Commissioner Margaret Gomez added that she did not want to venture too far afield from Capital Metro's original mandate. "I'm not too keen on veering very far from what the voters intended, and I really like to carry out the mandates as closely as I can," Gomez said.

One point fleshed out during the presentation by Rick L'Amie was the timeline for the study of circulation patterns around Downtown, the Capitol Complex, and the University of Texas, as well as Highland Mall, Mueller and the Gateway area. If the referendum is passed, the study of circulation patterns would begin immediately and any possible referendum for additional rail spurs would go to the voters in a referendum in 2006.

Comments from the audience were generally positive. Mayor Will Wynn pledged to support passage of the referendum in Austin, noting that commuter rail "will be an indispensable part to deal with the traffic in our town."

Council Member Dave Siebold of Leander pledged his support too, saying that his city was eager to support rail, including the encouragement of transit-oriented development in that area and the creation of a functional commuter rail station. The city's goal was to create a concentrated living area within a half-mile radius of the commuter rail station. Siebold also expressed pleasure that the newly appointed Capital Metro board member was from Leander.

Mayor Will Wynn, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, and Liveable City all expressed support for the plan.

Hospital district board hears budget proposal

Interim Administrator Jim Collins presented a Travis County Hospital District budget of approximately $75 million during a work session at the Granger Building last night.

Members of the hospital district board of managers continue to tweak the budget, which will be presented in a public hearing Wednesday night. Collins admitted that a number of the line items were imprecise, using figures based on the board's "best guesses" on various budget expenses.

The budget was calculated on an estimated $75 million in revenue, or 8 cents from the city and county tax rates. The budget will be a balance between the required expenditures and a proposed $5 million set aside for additional or enhanced services, as implied under the legislation.

About $50 million will go to outside agency contracts. Of that total, $41.8 million is to the City of Austin for the administration of the clinics, the Medical Assistance Program and the third-party administration of various contracts and grants. Another $8.5 million will go to Seton for the contract to run Brackenridge Hospital, plus physician services and home health care. The final $3.1 million is the contract with the University of Texas Medical Branch to run the Austin Women's Hospital.

The budget also includes a $24 million line item for disproportionate share funding that will be "sent up" to the federal government. That cash will return to the hospital district in revenue, thus netting out to zero. The city and county disagreed on how the figure would be accounted for in the actual budget document, which Collins eventually discussed with the board in closed session.

Trish Young, executive director of the city's Community Care Department, said the $41.8 million tally does not include the county services being assumed by the city under the hospital district contract. The figure is based on current, rather than anticipated, delivery, Young said. Board member Thomas Young, the former Brackenridge administrator, said that additional expense could be balanced by increased efficiencies in the combined clinics.

The number is net, rather than gross, expenses for the city contract, Trish Young said. Her tally does make some assumptions, such as a projected increase in the enrollment under the Medical Assistance Program. Any budget enhancements—such as employee additions, increases in pharmaceutical costs and salary increases—would be handled under a $5 million designated enhancement reserve in the budget.

The budget sets aside $377, 651 for personnel costs. That would include the salary of the hospital administrator, as well as various taxes tied to employees. Initial employees will include a hospital administrator, plus an assistant and office manager. The hospital district has also budgeted $50,000 for an executive search firm for the manager.

Other numbers are less certain. For instance, the budget includes $350,000 in legal services between July 2004 and September 2005. The county will bill the hospital district $270,000 of that total, with an option for $80,000 in outside legal services, possibly for Seton lease negotiations. Thomas Young said that outside counsel might cost less and suggested that the total could be cut by another $30,000. Appraisal district and tax collection services provided by the county will cost the hospital district another $575,000.

The budget has earmarked $300,000 for audit services. Of that total, $225,000 would go to an audit of city/county services to determine a baseline and reserve, which could be unnecessary if the city reaches an agreement with the county on the reserve amount. County Auditor Susan Spataro has already defined a scope of work for the audit. Another $75,000 would go to provide a baseline on the initial balance sheet for the district.

The budget committee set aside $200,000 for the proposed "Stick audit," a compromise inserted into legislation that would require the hospital district to set a baseline for services 5, 15 and 30 years into the future. Vice Chair Carl Richie suggested that the hospital district approach the University of Texas about sharing the cost of the study, given that the university was exploring the possibility of a medical school in Austin. He also suggested the city might want to share the cost, given that the city came up with the idea.

Collins said the audit, and another $75,000 recommended for legislative services, would be the first items he would cut when it came time to balance the budget.

The public hearing on the hospital district budget is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Wednesday in the Commissioners Courtroom at the Granger Building, 314 W 11th Street.

Biscoe says independent autopsy may be OK

Community leader Rev. Sterling Lands is asking for an independent autopsy of those people who have died in police custody, a concession County Judge Sam Biscoe said he would be willing to consider in future cases but state law enforcement officials considered unprecedented.

Lands questioned official explanations of the deaths of 10 minority people at the hands of police officers in a complaint presented to the county last month. In each case, the autopsy indicated the deaths "were justified or unrelated to any unjustifiable actions by the law enforcement officers." After a review of the records, Biscoe said he could find no evidence that the cause of death was incorrect in any of the cases or that the coroners were unaccredited. Biscoe said he could not act on broad allegations from Lands that the government records were falsified or that testimony was perjured during trials.

Lands' complaint is that the deaths fall into two categories, either homicide or accidental, Biscoe said, and that the latter category is questionable. Biscoe acknowledged that the use of deadly force or restraint on prisoners continues to be a question on a national level.

All four cases ruled accidental involved drug use. Medical Examiner Roberto Bayardo explained that people under the influence of drugs are sensitive to adrenaline rushes that often come when a prisoner is taken into custody. The deaths would not have occurred without the presence of drugs, Bayardo assured reporters.

Biscoe said the judicial system has checks and balances for such assumptions. A grand jury can pursue charges in a case, regardless of an accidental death ruling. A judge, jury or District Attorney could choose to pursue additional information.

After reviewing the results with Biscoe, Lands said he would prefer to see an outside evaluation of current cases. In a letter to Biscoe, Lands wrote, "I respectfully request that the Travis County Commissioners’ Court have the bodies of (Rodney) Wickware, (Erick) McDonald, (Steven) Scott, (Joel) Hernandez and possibly (sic) Scott examined by an independent out of county Medical Examiner to determine the cause of death. The independent out of county Medical Examiner should have no ties or prior relationship with the Austin Police Department, Travis County Sheriff Department, Texas Department of Public Safety or any CAPCO Region Law Enforcement Agency or personnel."

Biscoe said it was too late to redo prior autopsies, as they would require exhumation, but that he was open to an outside opinion on future cases. Charley Wilkison of the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas said he was troubled by such a suggestion. Wilkison said he was unaware of any jurisdiction in the state that had required additional autopsies beyond those required by a judge during a court case.

To question the independence of the coroner—that he might be favoring law enforcement over impartial findings—is to question the entire justice system, Wilkison said.

"It's a giant question that goes back to credibility and expertise and truthfulness," Wilkison said. "You already have a way to have a second opinion. When someone says you need to have a back up to an autopsy, it is a second guess to the entire system. To second-guess it, it means you don't believe anybody. To not believe is to completely disbelieve."

Biscoe said he did not intend to pursue any further investigation of the Lands' charges. The conclusions of his investigation may be discussed at Commissioners Court next Tuesday.

City to work harder on bringing filmmakers to Austin. . . Economist John Hockenyos with Texas Perspectives finished a report ordered by the City Council on the economic impact of the film industry in Austin. He concluded that it contributes nearly $360 million a year to the local economy. But the report also urged the city to make some changes to improve the working environment for the film industries to prevent productions from being lured to other locations. The City Manager's office is already acting on several of the recommendations, including making it easier for production companies to obtain city permits and obtain answers to frequently asked questions . . . Meeting today . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission and the Planning Commission will hold a joint work session at 6pm tonight in Room 325 of One Texas Center. The two commissions, which share many of the same duties, are scheduled to talk about their respective accomplishments over the past year and discuss what Envision Central Texas calls its vision document.

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