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Commissioners approve hospital district budget

Wednesday, September 15, 2004 by

Two commissioners still angry at city

County Commissioners gave conditional approval to the hospital district's $97.3 million budget yesterday, subject to the presentation of documentation of the city's contribution to the district's reserve fund and the completion of the interlocal agreement.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who considered a "yes" vote on the budget a tacit approval of the city's choice to transfer $33 million out of the hospital district's reserve fund, was the only commissioner who did not support the budget. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner said she had not given up on the "missing reserve," but she was not willing to hold the budget hostage over an issue between the city and the county.

Then Sonleitner repeated her warning to the city that, if it continued to withhold the $33 million from the hospital district, the Council could expect to see a far less cooperative Commissioners' Court when it comes to issues such as firefighters, EMS stations and tax rebates on the much-coveted Waller Creek tunnel project. "Let the line begin," Sonleitner told her colleagues, although the comment clearly was directed at the city. "We know what they did and the community knows what they did."

Daugherty pointed out that the city would invest $10.7 million—on paper—into the hospital district, but that this figure wasn't a true representation of the city's contribution; $3.7 million came from existing disproportionate share funding. Sonleitner added that another $3 million came from an existing fund balance that already belonged to the hospital district. That took the real total of the contribution down to $4 million.

The city did agree to deed over the Medical Assistance Program building at 1111 East Cesar Chavez. Just one block east of the freeway, the building will continue to house MAP and serve as the headquarters for the fledgling Travis County Hospital District.

Daugherty said he appreciated that the reserve was part of the interlocal agreement, but said that after a year of fighting with the city over joint subdivision regulations, he didn't have any assurance that city staff would come up with real dollars. Daugherty said he expected severe resistance to put ample money into the hospital district deal.

The Board of Managers walked a fine line at the hearing on Tuesday. While Acting Interim Director Jim Collins acknowledged the commissioners’ concerns, Manager Donald Patrick pointed out that the board intended to maintain a good relationship with both the city and the county, regardless of the final decision on the reserve.

County Commissioners put off the final budget vote to accommodate a number of concerns: Auditor Susan Spataro said she needed documentation of the reserve fund contribution before she could sign off on the agreement. A number of commissioners expressed concern over the tentative state of the interlocal agreement between the Hospital District and the city to operate the city/county clinics. And Sonleitner pointed out a tax hearing next week would be pointless if the budget had already been set.

District Chair Clarke Heidrick pushed hard for budget approval, saying the Council's approval was prefaced with a promise that County commissioners would follow through with their part of the bargain on the hospital district. Commissioners have agreed to contribute $2.5 million to the hospital district's reserve. Approval of the budget would make it easier to move forward with the district's next steps, Heidrick said.

County Judge Sam Biscoe's final compromise to please both the court and Heidrick was to suggest conditional approval with the intention to take an actual vote on Sept. 28. The tax rate generated by the budget would be 6.35 cents for city residents and 1.44 cents for county residents, which will cover the first year of the district’s operation.

The final budget did include decisions by the Board of Managers to pay $175,000 for an administrator's salary, reduce payment to outside counsel from $80,000 to $50,000, and pay the county $220,000 for legal services.

A forensic audit of the hospital district's assets, pegged at $200,000, was dropped from the budget after the city agreed to its reserve contribution. And a survey of current and future health care needs, known as the Stick Amendment, was shaved to just under $200,000, with the intention of approaching the Travis County delegation for support.

The budget also has an ongoing $249,000 in annual fees that will go to reserve funds. Those fees are outside of the anticipated funding of the budget.

Heidrick said the board had not yet discussed enhancement expenditures. The board wanted to be especially careful about the funding, knowing that one-time expenditures often turn into greater recurring expenditures, he said. Asked what the priorities might be, Manager Rose Lancaster said trauma care and psychiatric services were raised frequently during the campaign and would deserve some careful consideration by the board.

Commissioner Margaret Gómez said she would closely track the hospital district’s progress, wanting to see that it met its campaign promise to "Save Money, Save Lives." Manager Rosie Mendoza promised the budget had plenty of non-recurring expenditures, plus areas where some amount of funding would likely be returned to the hospital district coffers. Heidrick said the board would do its best to be good stewards of the community's tax dollars, especially when it came to reserve funds.

Commission approves disputed subdivision

Last night the Planning Commission approved the subdivision request for a 15-acre site at the intersection of Perry Road and Bolm Road. Commissioners voted unanimously to approve the subdivision — part of a plan to develop 98 single-family homes — despite vocal protests from the surrounding neighbors. Although commissioners were sympathetic to the neighborhood's complaints, they were legally required to approve the subdivision since it met all of the city's requirements.

Neighbors argued that 98 homes on the tract would produce an unacceptable level of density. The tract already has SF-4A zoning, which would allow for the number of homes outlined under the developer's plans to comply with the city's SMART Housing standards. "We're not against the community, the people, or development," said Theresa Houston from the Boggy Creek Neighborhood. "On a much smaller density, it would be appealing to us to have more people involved in our neighborhood."

Other speakers suggested that developer Evan Williams cut the number of proposed homes in half, and build 50 homes on larger lots. But the number of lots being proposed was consistent with the SF-4A zoning, which was changed from SF-3 during the neighborhood planning process ( See In Fact Daily, August 24th, 2004). "Yes, we did re-zone over 600 properties in this area, so at the end, a lot of things did come through," said neighborhood activist Susana Almanza. "But I can tell you, when we looked at that particular zoning…we never envisioned…that people are going to try to cram a hundred homes into that area."

Neighbors also expressed concern over administrative waivers granted to the project for set-backs, stormwater detention, and minimum street size. They also questioned the impact it would have on the flood plain map and complained that the development would result in the removal of several large trees.

But under state law provisions for subdivision regulation, the commissioners' hands were tied. "This is a legal subdivision, and we're required by state law to approve subdivisions which meet state and local standards," said Commissioner Dave Sullivan. "The time to argue about density was when the property was zoned SF-4. The fact that it did not happen is unfortunate. I would advise the neighbors to look at the existing vacant property nearby, which is SF-3, which can be developed at even greater density than this…and make some decisions about whether that property should be re-zoned SF-2 or SF-1. As it is, this entire area is likely to be more heavily developed in the future. If you don't want more high-density zoning, the time to act on that is now…looking at the undeveloped tracts that are SF-3."

Commission Chair Chris Riley also tried to provide the neighborhood residents some guidance on how best to achieve their goals. "I would encourage those in the neighborhood to not just walk away from this feeling like that's the end of the story," he said. "One valuable outcome of this process is that it has raised a lot of consciousness and awareness about the environmental issues in that area and the threat that the neighborhood faces with future development. This zoning, obviously, got through under the radar in the neighborhood planning process. If I were in the neighborhood, I'd be wondering what else slipped in." But audience members did not seem to appreciate the commissioners’ comments; one neighborhood resident made an obscene gesture and shouted an expletive as the commission voted 8-0 to approve the subdivision.

Neighbors will take their concerns about the project to the Environmental Board tonight. The board is posted for a staff briefing on the subdivision. However, since no environmental variances are being requested, the Board does not have authority to block the project. The board will also hear a briefing on plans for more parking at ACC’s Eastview Campus. No environmental variances are being sought for that project, but it has also been opposed by some of the same neighborhood activists opposing the Edward Joseph subdivision on Bolm Road.

County wants to look at new lockup

Travis County Commissioners are looking for money to fund a study to build a new jail facility in Del Valle. Commissioners received a report Tuesday from Mike Trimble of the Criminal Justice Planning Department detailing preliminary plans for a new corrections facility that would replace many of the aging and temporary buildings now being used in Del Valle.

The plan, put forth in the Jail Operations Study presented to commissioners for review two weeks ago, calls for a 1,688-bed facility to be built on the current Del Valle site, which features an odd collection of buildings. According to Trimble, the new building would eliminate the current Building 4 and Chapel. “With the new building, we will get certain operational efficiencies, but we will continue to utilize the buildings that still have some useful life,” he told commissioners. “A chapel would be incorporated into the new building.”

The price tag for all this starts at $100 million and goes higher, depending on whose vision is applied.

But the ultimate cost is secondary, for now. County Judge Sam Biscoe wants to move quickly on a preliminary study of the jail complex. He estimates that obtaining a detailed plan of the site will cost between $500,000 and $800,000, or between 5 and 10 percent of the total project cost.

Commissioner Margaret Gómez says the nature of the Del Valle facilities has changed over the years. “It’s no longer a minimum-security facility,” she said. “That went out the window years ago.” Alluding to the myriad problems the county experienced in building its downtown Criminal Justice Center, she said this facility must be planned properly. “We need to show that we have learned from our past mistakes.”

Commissioners are eager to get the project going so as to not garner any unwanted attention from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. Even with a new facility going online in the past few years, the jail population has been hovering at or near capacity in recent months.

Biscoe was philosophical about overcrowding, but emphasized that this facility should be built with later expansion in mind. “No matter how many beds we build into this facility, somewhere down the line – and probably sooner than we think – they’ll be back asking for more beds,” he said.

Commissioners ordered the County Attorney and the Planning and Budget staff to meet and report back next week on ways to fund the preliminary study.

Sheffield opposes recall . . . The Austin Police Association and Austin-Travis County EMS Employees Association waded into the fray over toll roads on Tuesday, offering their political support to Mayor Will Wynn and two members of the City Council who voted for the toll roads. "Our message about the recall is also very simple," said Austin Police Association President Mike Sheffield. "No thanks! We believe that Mayor Wynn and the City Council have been strong and effective advocates for fixing the traffic crisis, even when that has required some tough decisions. As the Austin Police Association, we urge the community to reject any recall effort" . . . Diez y Seis celebration tonight . . . All are invited to Saltillo Plaza tonight from 7 to 11pm to celebrate Mexico’s independence from Spain. The city, the Fiesta de Independencia Foundation and the Consul General of Mexico are hosting the event, which includes the reenactment of Father Miguel Hidalgo’s cry for independence, a mariachi band and Ballet Folklorico. The Plaza is at 412 Comal Street . . . All quiet at City Hall . . . There were few visitors in the hallways yesterday and some offices were dark. Council Member Brewster McCracken expressed optimism that the State of Texas will be singing a different tune on toll roads. His aide said emails had been friendlier since he moved to hold a hearing on taking out the most controversial of the roads from the toll plan. That does not count email from Mike Levy, a former big supporter known for his frequent and vitriolic missives . . . Rainey Street readings continue . . . The Planning Commission gave its stamp of approval—with some reservations about various staff proposals—to zoning the Rainey Street neighborhood CBD. The Downtown Commission will hear the plan and make recommendations tonight. Their meeting begins at 5:30pm at Waller Creek Center . . . The Environmental Board will meet at 6pm in Room 325 of One Texas Center . . . The Mexican American Cultural Center board will meet at 6pm in the Parks and Recreation Department Conference Room, 200 S. Lamar . . . Chief to address DAA . . . At tomorrow’s Downtown Austin Alliance breakfast, Police Chief Stan Knee will discuss an “innovative new interlocal agreement between the DAA, Austin Parks and Recreation and the Austin Police Department.” The meeting is at 8am at St. David’s’ Episcopal Church, 304 E. 7th Street.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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