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State cuts mean city's dollars must stretch further

Friday, August 13, 2004 by

Health, human services eliminating 7 full-time jobs

Austin's budget for health and human services will remain relatively unchanged next year. While that may seem like a significant accomplishment given the city's budget crunch, city leaders are pointing out that the city's health and social services system is facing an increasing strain due to budget cuts at the state level.

The city's Health and Human Services Department, under Director David Lurie, has a proposed budget for FY 2004-5 of $51.3 million. In order to cut costs, the department is eliminating seven full-time jobs. Five of those positions are currently filled. Those employees have been offered other positions within the city. Three full-time positions are being added in a program devoted to serving youth at-risk of dropping out of high school. Those positions are being funded by an outside grant. Combined with cutting costs in other areas such as utility expenses and building maintenance, the overall reduction in General Fund dollars going into the department's budget amounts to $689,286. "It feels a little strange to be sitting here in front of you feeling a sense of relief to only be talking about $689,000 in reductions," Lurie told Council members. "Our department over the previous two years took a total reduction of just over $5 million and about 75 full-time equivalents. Relatively speaking, this feels much better."

The city's General Fund is the largest source of money for the department's budget. But the department also receives some money from Travis County for its public health efforts and another $19 million in grants from outside sources.

The Health and Human Services Department provides much of the city's "social safety net,” either through direct provision of services or through contracting with social service agencies. Next year's budget includes $14.7 million for social services. "The largest expenditure areas include social services, such as workforce services for the homeless, child care, basic needs, mental health and substance-abuse services," said Lurie. "The agencies are very productive and very effective in reaching individuals. I think, in fairness, what you would hear from the agencies is that because of the economy and so forth, they have been experiencing increases in their demand for services at the same time."

Responding to a question from Council Member Brewster McCracken, Lurie said that changes in funding at the state level were also having an impact locally. "That is a very large and complicated question, I think. But generally speaking, that cascades down to the local level," he said. "When I referenced a lot of the agencies we deal with and how we've experienced an increase in demand, it's not only economic circumstances that pressure that demand. It is also changes in policy and funding at other levels in government. The people here turn to us as the safety net and sort of the last place to go."

McCracken had further pointed questions about the impact of children losing eligibility for the state's Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP. "If children are cut off from that program, the effect is they are having to access services through the safety net," said Lurie, "and there may be instances . . . because they don't have the insurance . . . they choose to forgo services. As a result, they may end up accessing the system when they're in a crisis mode and end up using more costly services." While Lurie carefully avoided making any statements that could be construed as political or criticizing state policies, Democrat McCracken did not hold back. "On top of being a completely inhumane way to govern a state, it's also more costly for the local taxpayers," McCracken concluded.

Council Member Danny Thomas and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman both praised the department for its ability to continue providing services under difficult circumstances. "All the folks who are involved in this service provision are very creative and they make a dime do the work of a dollar," Goodman said. "Now, we're having to make it do the work of two dollars, which is especially impossible in bad times." She decried the long-term trend at the state level of pushing more and more of the responsibility for providing those services down to local governments. "It's been a long time since the state began reducing its contributions. Certainly cities have to take up the slack. Although the need has risen, spending has decreased or stayed level. That amount of dollars is something the state costs us . . . I bet there are any number of ways to quantify and prove what the state costs us when they reduce money, attention or priority in a number of areas."

Northwest property gets new zoning despite MUD complaints

Some residents of the Canyon Creek subdivision told the City Council yesterday that they did not oppose a developer’s plans to build a single-family subdivision next to their homes. However, they hoped the new residents would be brought into their municipal utility district (MUD) to help defray the cost of the infrastructure. But the Council voted 5-1 to grant the zoning request without wading into a controversy that has already taken the city into court. Council Member Brewster McCracken voted against the zoning change and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman had gone to the hospital to look after her mother, who is seriously ill.

Paul Linehan of Land Strategies represented Fred Eppright, who plans to build townhouses or condominiums on the property at 9300-9800 RM620 Road. The property had previously been zoned I-RR (interim rural residential). Eppright won the support of members of the Canyon Creek Homeowners Association by agreeing to a number of conditions and entering into a restrictive covenant with the neighborhood.

Linehan told the Council, “It didn’t just happen by accident that we got neighborhood support.” He outlined steps the developer had taken, such as doing a tree survey and laying out roads to follow existing water mains. He said the proposed townhouse design would make a good transition to the homes of nearby Savannah Ridge.

Karin Crump, who spoke on behalf of the Canyon Creek residents, noted that subdivision owners had previously signed what was thought to be a valid petition. (For complex reasons, the petition turned out to be invalid.) She said they had then worked with development representatives to ensure that their primary concerns were addressed. Those included a sufficient amount of setback, “a nice neighborhood,” the same amount of masonry on the exterior of buildings, preservation of trees, adequate cleanup and a gate for the protection of the children.

MUD President Don Zimmerman said, “I find myself in violent agreement with Karin,” adding that the zoning and agreement “make a lot of sense. The only reason I’m here is the MUD annexation. We have some concerns that if the annexation goes through there will be some property value decrease and that burden will have to be picked up by other MUD property owners.” He pointed out that part of the subdivision pays taxes to both the City of Austin and to the MUD. He asked that the Council somehow direct that the new development, Savannah Ridge, “be taken into the MUD.” Linehan said that naturally the property owner would not agree to such an arrangement.

The MUD lost its battle against what residents call double taxation in the trial court. The case is now on appeal. The city’s lawyers successfully argued that this MUD should not be treated differently than any other.

Dallas enacts big box moratorium

DALLAS – The first call Council Member Ed Oakley took Thursday morning—after the Dallas City Council approved a 60-day moratorium on new big box retailer development Wednesday night—was from a panicked developer in Southwest Dallas.

The developer had a piece of land under contract next to Pinnacle Park. In Dallas, Pinnacle Park is somewhat akin to a desired development zone, an area of Dallas so blighted that city leaders are eager to offer any number of tax breaks to encourage new projects. The Wednesday night vote, however, turned this developer's slam-dunk deal for a Super Target upside down. The bank was calling him, asking just what he planned to do about the city.

"I didn't have any idea the deal was going to happen," said Oakley, who happened to be on the losing end of the moratorium vote. "Suddenly, I've got a developer out there with a Super Target and four pad sites who is caught up in all of this, who has to pay the price for a deal out on Park Lane at Central Expressway that isn't even going to happen."

To understand just how frustrated Oakley was, you have to understand how difficult it is to redevelop some areas of North Oak Cliff. His colleagues joke that Oakley is so eager for new business in his district, he'd show up for "the opening of an envelope." The ribbon cutting on a Chili's – the first suburban restaurant in years – brought out Oakley and Mayor Laura Miller. It was that important for the neighborhood.

The final vote on the moratorium was 9-5. Proponents say it will give city leaders a chance to weigh standards for zoning and design on big-box retailers. Opponents say it will have a chilling effect on the retail development already begun in places like Southwest Dallas.

Dallas and Houston have never been known for significant design standards. Interim City Manager Mary Suhm says it's never too late to begin the process of developing design standards for Dallas development. Already, Dallas has developed some design guidelines in places like historic districts, where the standards are enforced with a zoning overlay.

The moratorium in Dallas came after a number of big-box battles here, including the defeat of a Wal-Mart on Mockingbird Lane near Love Field. Residents currently are battling two big-box sites: one on the site of a former shopping mall off Preston Lane in far North Dallas and the other on a large parcel of raw land on Central Expressway at Park Lane, across from the upscale Northpark Center.

Suhm says the moratorium gives the city time to address not only design issues but also the traffic flow issues and the impact of larger retailers on local neighborhoods. A 60-day moratorium will give the city the chance to be "thoughtful" about development issues.

"It's not just design," Suhm said. "It's the kind of impact these retailers have on a neighborhood. This gives us a chance to have a real conversation about it."

While some have argued that design standards will drive away developers, Suhm says it often does just the opposite. She points to Uptown, where careful new urbanism design of places like the West Village has encouraged, rather than discouraged, development.

Council Member Oakley says he's not against design standards. He is afraid, however, of the message that a moratorium sends to those looking at Dallas. He worries about developers at Pinnacle Park.

"I'm not saying we shouldn't have design standards," Oakley said. "I'm just not sure we need to have a moratorium to get them. The store they worry about out on Central Expressway isn't even going to happen."

And, in the meantime, Oak Cliff is losing the chance for a Super Target near Pinnacle Park. Even if the moratorium is limited areas North of Interstate 30, it says that Dallas isn't open to new retail development opportunities, Oakley said.

While the mayor has suggested developers will not move to higher and better standards without strong encouragement from the city, Oakley says some developers have initiated conversations with the neighborhoods. Wal-Mart, for instance, already is meeting with the neighborhoods around Prestonwood Mall to discuss more compatible design standards for a large-scale store.

Baker hospitalized . . . Zoning and Platting Commission Chair Betty Baker was resting in the South Austin Hospital last night after being admitted Thursday night with abdominal pains. However, a friend reports that she may be released as early as today. We wish her a speedy recovery . . . More work for task force . . . Betty Dunkerley said she would have an item on the Aug. 26 agenda directing the Historic Preservation Task Force to go back to the drawing board for 30 days on one item. Dunkerley said a couple of days before the task force was ready to make its report, the legal department indicated that they had a problem with one of the changes the group was proposing. The task force wanted to ensure that those who have invested in their historic homes would continue to have the same tax exemptions they now have, but they wanted to decrease the percentage for homes designated historic in the future. “I want to see if there’s anything they want to do,” to try to resolve that problem, she said . . . Appointments. . . Chris Wagner was appointed by Council Member Dunkerley and Calvin Williams was reappointed by Council Member Thomas to the Construction Advisory Committee. Sarah Reams, Capital City Chamber of Commerce rep., was reappointed by consensus to the MBE/WBE Advisory Committee. Steve Alvarez was a consensus appointment to the Mexican American Cultural Center Advisory Board. Matthew Moore was reappointed by consensus to the Planning Commission. Mayor Pro Tem Goodman reappointed Deborah Hill to the Telecommunications Commission . . . Missing facts from headline . . . On page 1 of yesterday’s Am-Stat, a small headline indicated that Mayor Will Wynn and Rep. Mike Krusee “have changes in mind” for the controversial toll road plan. That is not the case, however. The city’s lobbyist at the Capitol, John Hrncir, said he had not heard anything from the Mayor’s office on this issue. He added that the only conversation he had had about the matter was a brief, off-the-cuff conversation with Council Member Brewster McCracken on the street. He has not gotten any directives from anyone to seek changes to the plan, he said. So, whatever the Governor’s Office is (or isn’t) doing, City Council members are not involved. Wynn is trying to exercise influence over the CTRMA, however, to make sure the amendments CAMPO members approved in July make it into toll road designs and on the ground. But Wynn and McCracken are not doing anything with the Republicans. McCracken is a diehard Democrat and Wynn an insistent independent—to his detriment in a town nearly evenly split between R’s and D’s. So, there’s no reason why the Governor would want to help them. Thursday’s rumor was that the Governor’s Office was working on a change to the toll road plan that would be helpful to Rep. Jack Stick. Stick, of course, is facing a strong Democrat, Mark Strama, in November . . Not so, says Governor’s Office . . . Robert Black, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Perry, yesterday denied that the governor has intervened in any dispute over Central Texas toll roads. Perry has not and will not get involved in the Central Texas toll road debate, Black said. The governor's spokesman did acknowledge that Perry's office had spoken to both sides of the toll road issue, but Black would not describe it as mediation or even facilitation. "He's just listening, just like he would when people bring any issue to him," said Black…. Strama urges Governor to act . . . Stick’s opponent said he would join with his Republican rival if the two of them together could influence the Governor to act on the toll plan for Wells Branch Parkway. In a letter sent yesterday, Strama asked Perry to help Wells Branch residents, noting that they had been “Ignored in the recent histrionics surrounding the CAMPO toll road vote.” Those residents, Strama argued, “are facing a far more immediate and unfair toll plan that was unilaterally imposed by TxDOT without approval of the specific toll booth placement from CAMPO, CTRMA, or the neighborhoods that are affected by it. This proposal would force Wells Branch residents to pay a toll on a stretch of FM1325 (the segment of roadway north of Loop 1), which they currently drive for free, or else to exit MoPac before Parmer Lane – aggravating what is already a 10-minute stoplight during peak traffic periods” . . . PS . . . The Mayor says you should all wear something yellow in honor of Lance Armstrong today. And, he wants 100,000 citizens to be at tonight’s parade .

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