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Group sues city over Wal-Mart property settlement

Tuesday, August 3, 2004 by

Coalition worries Monaghan may lure another big box store to MoPac and Slaughter

A group of southwest neighborhood associations and two environmental groups have formed a coalition that sued the city of Austin and the owner of the proposed Wal-Mart tract yesterday, alleging that the city’s settlement with the landowner was illegal and that the property should be developed under the SOS Ordinance. The Austin Community Coalition For Responsible Development (ACCORD) consists of the homeowner associations for Deer Park at Maple Run, Sendera, Circle C, the New Village of Western Oaks, Shady Hollow, Save Barton Creek Association and the Sierra Club, according to the group’s president John Robert Stratton. Attorney Geoffrey Weisbart of Hance Scarborough Wright Woodward & Weisbart is representing ACCORD.

Stratton said, “We believe the alleged settlement violates the Texas Open Meetings Act, the City Charter and the SOS Ordinance and is absolutely unenforceable.” He added that his group expects a court to rule that both the SOS Ordinance and the Big Box Ordinance apply to the tract.

Last fall, Wal-Mart abandoned its proposal to build a 200,000 square foot store at MoPac and Slaughter Lane after considerable pressure from citizens groups and Austin officials. The property is an environmentally sensitive tract over the recharge zone of the Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer. When Wal-Mart announced that it had given up plans to build that store, property owner James Monaghan and his company, S.R. Ridge, Limited Partnership, sued the city and Stratus Properties. That lawsuit claims that Stratus and some Council members illegally interfered with Monaghan’s right to conduct business. (See In Fact Daily, October 2, 2003; October 22, 2003.)

Stratton said Monday that ACCORD members had been trying to speak to Monaghan since Wal-Mart relinquished its option to purchase the property but those efforts have been unsuccessful. Although ACCORD is not a party to the lawsuit, Monaghan filed against the city and Stratus. The group’s members noticed that attorneys for Monaghan filed a plea in abatement last month asking that the pace of the suit be slowed to accommodate settlement talks. Such a settlement would further complicate an already murky situation and possibly pave the way for another big box type of retailer to locate on the site.

Brian Cassidy of Locke Liddell & Sapp, who represents Monaghan and the partnership, confirmed Monday that the lawsuit process had been stopped temporarily to allow for settlement talks. However, he refused to give any details on the status of those discussions. City Attorney David Smith confirmed that there have been talks but also declined to give any details.

The site plan, which was prepared for Wal-Mart, would have put 65-percent impervious cover on the sensitive property, far above the 15 percent allowed under the SOS Ordinance. Monaghan and the city claimed that the SOS Ordinance did not apply to his 53-acre tract because the city gave up that argument in a 1996 settlement agreement with SR Ridge. However, ACCORD claims now that that agreement is void and has been since its inception.

Only five of seven Council members were able to attend the February 1, 1996 Council meeting due to unusually icy road conditions that day. The plaintiffs in this lawsuit allege that the agenda for that meeting did not give proper notice that the city might enter into such a broad and wide-ranging agreement with Monaghan and related entities. In addition, they allege that the minutes of that meeting were amended on July 3, 2003 to show that the settlement had been approved. More importantly perhaps, ACCORD points out that only five Council members could have voted in favor of that settlement, but six votes are needed to amend the SOS Ordinance. Since only five Council members attended the meeting— Mayor Bruce Todd, Mayor Pro Tem Gus Garcia, and Council Members Jackie Goodman, Eric Mitchell and Ronney Reynolds—only five could have voted in favor of the agreement. However, Mitchell did not appear to be on the dais in a video clip from the portion of the meeting that includes that vote.

The lawsuit says the city is estopped from asserting that six votes were not needed by rulings in the recent City of Sunset Valley et al v. City of Austin and Lowe’s Home Improvement Centers. However, since the Lowe’s suit is still pending, that argument is unlikely to persuade either the city or the landowner. The Lowe’s case is set for trial in early September.

Hospital board begins to tackle heavy assignment

Heidrick elected chair; Richie is vice chair

The newly appointed board of directors for the Travis County Hospital District spent the first of two grueling days yesterday reviewing the basic structure of the county's publicly funded health care safety net in order to begin work on a district budget.

The creation of the district is an intricate dance between Austin and Travis County, one that has already required hundreds of hours of work on the part of employees of each entity. Trish Young, who heads the city's Community Care Services Department, spearheaded much of the discussion on Monday, which focused on the current structure of health care services for the indigent residents of Travis County.

Even though it is really a health care district, its official title remains “hospital district” because of the legislation that created it. The district's assets will ultimately include 14 community health centers, as well as Brackenridge Hospital. The estimated $10.4 million in current revenue for indigent health care covers primary care clinics, a dental program, some mental health services, pharmacy benefits and hospital-based specialty services. The city and county also offer a Medical Assistance Program for the uninsured.

During its initial housekeeping, the board elected attorney Clarke Heidrick chair of the nine-member board of directors. Attorney Carl Richie will serve as vice chair.

Young described Travis County’s health care system as stretched to its limits in both staff and funding. It is described by many of its primary care physicians as "third world medicine" because so much of the care is simply triage. The clinics can no longer provide preventative care, Young said.

Young's presentation was loaded with data. For example: one out of every four residents in Travis County is without insurance; one out of five uninsured residents in the county has accessed the city or county services for indigent care; and the dozen community health centers across the city and county saw 45,000 different patients last year.

All of those patients have an income no more than 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines, and almost 80 percent of the patients fall beneath 100 percent of poverty guidelines. More than half the county's revenue for indigent patients comes from Medicaid reimbursements, followed by grants, Medicare and the city and county's Medical Assistance Program for low-income residents, Young said.

Right now the indigent health care system is tapped out, Young said, and most of the clinics have been at capacity since 2001. In June alone, the city took 250,000 calls from people wanting to enroll in the Medical Assistance Program; because of limited staff, only 10,000 of those calls made it into the queue for service.

Maintaining the designation of “ Federally Qualified Health Centers” will be an important goal for the health care district board. The FQHC designation multiplies dollars to underserved low-income areas. It also provides discounted prescription drugs—the biggest cost driver in the health care program—and increased federal grant support. Federal grants this year will help open a health care clinic for the homeless at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless and reopen the Montopolis Clinic.

City Chief Financial Officer John Stephens and Comptroller Jeff Knodel walked the board through the nuts-and-bolts of the disproportionate share program. Assistant City Attorney Sally Henly and Stephens provided a timeline for Brackenridge Hospital and the terms of the lease for both Seton and the University of Texas Medical Branch, or UTMB. The Brackenridge lease is balanced on a number of items, including the valuation of the hospital, the anticipated revenue from the disproportionate share program, the payment for physician services and the city/county Medical Assistance Program.

The contract between the city and Seton, which is in its 7th year of a 60-year lease, has been amended twice. The first amendment accommodated the fifth floor Austin Women's Hospital, required because of Catholic directives on reproductive services. The fifth-floor hospital is run by UTMB.

The second amendment to the city's contract with Seton anticipated the move of Children's Hospital of Austin to its new site at Mueller. The contract requires Seton to consult the city about the future use of the former Children's Hospital but it does not require the city's approval for any future plans for the facility.

In Fact Daily will provide more details about the financial arrangements of the Seton contract, as well as the financial assets the city and county will bring to the district. The board will meet again on the Wednesday to consider additional items on its agenda.

The audience in the cramped conference room at Brackenridge Hospital included the heads of four major county departments, as well as County Attorney David Escamilla and members of his staff who will be handling various aspects of the consolidation. The board of directors will report to Travis County Commissioners.

Music Commission opposes ACTV proposal

The Austin Music Commission passed a three-part resolution on Monday night after hearing from producers and supporters of Austin Community Television opposed to folding the operation of the Austin Music Network into ACTV. The commission is recommending that the City Council allow an advance on money already allocated under the contract for the Kenneth Threadgill Music Project to run the music network. But instead of directing the final payment to ACTV for management services to run the network through September 30, the commission is recommending that the Council give the money to KTMP.

AMN General Manager Louis Meyers will meet today with city staff and ACTV representatives to discuss the transfer of the contract to ACTV. He'll also present a financial plan for the final days under the existing contract. As for AMN's future after Sept. 30 as a programming block on one of the ACTV channels, Meyers told commissioners that details still had to be worked out. Although the City Council's Telecommunications Committee had suggested that 10 hours of AMN programming could find a home on ACTV, and ACTV board members appeared to be receptive to the idea, the nature of those programs is still undetermined. Much of the programming on AMN is supplied by outside producers. Programs actually produced by AMN include “AMN Kids Hour,” "Frankie Goes to High School" and "Texas Request."

Meyers also told commissioners that his future with AMN past the end of the September contract is unknown. While there has been talk of Austin Music Partners providing financial support for locally produced music programming, Meyers said he has not signed any deal with AMP.

Much of the discussion at Monday's Commission meeting centered on the role of access television. Syndicated talk-show host Alex Jones repeated many of the same arguments he made last week before the Council's Telecommunications Committee, including the claim that there was a plan by Time Warner Cable to eliminate all access TV channels in Austin by next fall. Jones did not offer documents to support this claim, but told commissioners he based his belief on a conversation he had had with "someone who used to manage the city."

The commission's resolution also urged the City Council to ensure the continuation of local music programming on Channel 15 until any new contract is signed. The commission specifically recommended against signing any contract with AMP until more details about the proposal are provided in writing and available to the public.

New Democratic star headed to Austin . . . Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate for the US Senate from Illinois, who invigorated last week’s Democratic National Convention, will be the guest of Garry and Cristina Mauro Thursday from 6:30 to 8:30pm. Obama is currently running unopposed. The Republican candidate dropped out after nasty sexual allegations surfaced, but party leaders are looking for a replacement. The lowest priced ticket for this event is $100. For more information, call Christian Archer (635-4971), Duffy Keever (495-8862) or Geronimo Rodriguez (477-7161). Other sponsors include Judge Sam Biscoe, State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, AISD Board Member John Fitzpatrick and Hazel Obey . . . Today’s meetings . . . The board of Austin-Bergstrom's Landhost Enterprises will meet this afternoon at 3 p.m. at 2716 Spirit of Texas Drive to discuss the performance of the Hilton Austin Airport Hotel. City Chief Financial Officer John Stephens confirms the hotel has underperformed financial expectations, which may lead to a need to restructure bond financing on the project. Faulkner USA developed the Hilton Austin Airport Hotel, as well as the Hilton Convention Center Hotel . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission will meet at 6pm in Room 325 of One Texas Center. The top item on their agenda is a request to alter PUD zoning for the Southwest Marketplace shopping center at William Canon and MoPac. The item was postponed last month but surrounding neighborhoods have endorsed the plan, which will include the area’s first Costco.

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