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New ACC campus: a year late and a program short

Tuesday, September 21, 2004 by

Board also raises tax rate for coming year

Last night, Austin Community College board members were surprised and upset to learn that completion of the $21 million South Austin Campus would be delayed by a full year. Project Manager Bronson Dorsey told trustees that the new campus, scheduled to open in 2005, would not be done until fall of 2006. In addition, Dorsey said that facilities for a commercial music department included in the original plans have been cut from the project due to costs.

Board member Nan McRaven led a chorus of concern from board members, demanding that Dorsey explain how the project got off track, and if the “construction manager at risk” model used on this project had failed. “I am very concerned about how we got to this point,” she said. ”We are planning to build more campuses using this model, and I need to know that if this model does not work, what model will work.”

Communications between the architect and the construction manager “were not as clear as they should have been,” Dorsey opined, adding that he didn’t believe the construction model used was at fault. “We planned the building based on student population projections,” he said. “We did not look at specific programs in planning the campus.”

Board Chair Barbara Mink requested that ACC President Robert Aguero meet with Dorsey and other staff involved with the project to determine how the problems came about and what changes are needed on future projects. “We need to know what to do differently as we go forward,” with other construction projects, she said. “We don’t want to repeat these mistakes.”

The board also voted to adopt a tax rate of nine cents per $100 valuation for the district’s 2005 fiscal year. That rate will generate some $46 million towards ACC’s $133 million budget, approved on June 21.

The new rate, which includes eight cents for maintenance and operations and one cent for debt, is $0.019 higher than in 2004, a 16.97 percent annual increase. The assessed value of property in the ACC district is $51.2 billion, a 2.35 percent increase. Ben Ferrell, ACC vice president for finance, says that will increase the average tax bill for residents in the ACC district a net 21.8 percent, making the tax on the average ($179,667) home in the district $161.70.

The board also voted to continue a residential homestead exemption equaling the greater of $5,000 or one percent of appraised value; an additional $75,000 for the elderly and disabled; and a partial exemption for properties designated as historic landmarks. Trustee Allen Kaplan voted “no” on the historic landmark exemption, saying it does not help the district. “It’s basically bad public policy,” he said. “It takes money away from us and does not provide any other benefit to ACC.”

Stick wants district needs assessment now

State Rep. Jack Stick, author of the Travis County Hospital District's infamous " Stick Amendment," is not inclined to wait to complete a long-term needs assessment of services essential to the fledgling hospital district.

The Stick Amendment was often referenced during budget discussions as a necessary, but rather costly, future expenditure of the hospital district. It was a concession to Stick (R-Austin), who was initially an opponent of the district referendum along with Rep. Todd Baxter (R-Austin). Opposition from the two Republicans kept the legislation off the local consent calendar during last year’s Legislative session, forcing a last-minute amendment to the omnibus health care bill that was intended to consolidate the state's health care agencies. The needs assessment was Stick’s amendment to that amendment, an expected expenditure intended to justify both the current and future levels of health care services in the county.

According to the legislation, the Travis County Hospital District must contract with an independent and disinterested person or entity "to examine the necessity of increased indigent, pediatric, trauma and mental health care in the geographic area service by the district.” The law dictates that whoever does the survey consider needs over five-, 15-, and 30-year periods following the date of the district's creation. The study must also address the necessity for health care specialists, and "determine whether additional education and training programs will be required” to meet local health care needs.

The district's Board of Managers has concluded that the section might easily dovetail with current state and University of Texas efforts to justify the need for a medical school in the region. To that end, Board Chair Clarke Heidrick and others have suggested that some individuals or entities might be willing to share in the cost of the study. Interim Executive Director Jim Collins has pointed out that, because the legislation dictates no timeline, the hospital district has some latitude to pay for the study after the first baseline year of operations.

The initial budget for the hospital district contained a $300,000 line item for the study, which was reduced to $191,000 in the final budget—with the anticipation that a partner could be found to defray some of the study’s cost.

Stick says he has no idea whether the hospital district is going to find any waste, but he does not want to wait to get the study completed. He says now is the time to assess the current and future needs of the hospital district.

"My concern is that we do a fantastic job of simply throwing money at a problem, and if the problem still exists, we decide that it exists because we haven't spent enough money on it," Stick said. "I think we should first identify our priorities, then identify our needs and, finally, spend money in accordance with our priorities as they relate to quantifiable needs."

A needs assessment gives the hospital district the ability to build a logical progressive argument, and if that argument works, then the conclusion of higher expenditures should be inevitable.

"What I don't like is to hear the argument I read in the paper that, 'We have a hospital district; therefore, we need more money,'" Stick said. "What happened in between the creation of the hospital district and asking for more money?"

Stick also is no fan of waiting around a year to complete the study. "If they use the first year as a baseline, and we keep spending the money that we're spending right now, how do I know we're spending money intelligently right now?" Stick asked. "How do we figure out if we're wasting money or we need to redirect resources or, God forbid, we should cut taxes? We don't know unless we ask those questions."

The local lawmaker also was not pleased about the idea of asking for partners to pay for the study. Supporters wanted a hospital district, Stick said. Now it's time for them to act responsibly and pay for that hospital district.

That doesn't mean Stick isn't open to new expenditures. Citing his past experience as a prosecutor, Stick said he understands how putting money into something like next-generation anti-psychotic drugs could help Travis County reduce the prison population, leading to both a cost savings and an improved quality of life. Stick says he just needs to be assured that the district is accountable for the money it has, and what is being spent.

The district board will meet at 6:30 p.m. tonight in the Commissioners Courtroom of the Granger Building, 11th and Guadalupe. Their agenda includes introduction of Ellen Richards, a veteran of health care planning for Travis County. Richards is also the daughter of former Gov. Ann Richards and a graduate of the LBJ School of Public Affairs.

Cap Metro rolls out commuter rail show

President Calvin Coolidge admired persistence. Perhaps the best-known quote attributed to Silent Cal asserts that while talent, genius and/or education often fail, persistence usually wins in the end.

The folks at Capital Metro have taken Coolidge’s words to heart. After a stinging but narrow defeat at the polls in 2000 for an ambitious (overly ambitious, according to some) light rail plan, they are back on the ballot this year with another, scaled-down proposal. Last week, the transit authority began a series of informational meetings designed to sell the voting public on the need for its new long range transit plan, titled “All Systems Go!”

The 2000 light rail plan, devoid of such a snappy moniker, fell short of passing by less than 1,000 votes at the ballot box. A $1.9 billion price tag and an organized, well-heeled opposition campaign ultimately led to its demise.

At its first meeting Thursday night at the Austin Community College Pinnacle campus in Oak Hill, Capital Metro’s big-screen PowerPoint presentation outlined a relatively modest $60 million plan to an audience of about 50 people, most of whom were college students with time to kill between classes.

The half-hour presentation (which can be viewed online at http://allsystemsgo3.capmetro.org/news_info.asp) is replete with maps, pie charts and graphs spelling out the gridlock that will befall Central Texas by the year 2025. Capital Metro then lays out the plan that will be on the November 2 General Election ballot. The centerpiece of “All Systems Go!” is a single light rail project running 32 miles along Cap Metro’s existing freight line from Leander to Downtown Austin, terminating at the Austin Convention Center. Other prominent features include the addition of 10 “rapid bus” routes (not to be confused with Express service), higher-speed Express bus service from the suburbs and several new park-and-ride locations, increased cross-town routes, and realignment of routes to enhance other bus and rail connections.

Not included in the price is an estimated $30 million for the rail cars (which will be lease-purchased), some $40 million in track improvements and construction of rail stations and new park-and-ride lots. But even with those costs factored in, the total price tag remains less than10 percent of the advertised cost of the 2000 plan. Capital Metro says it plans a fare of $1 each way.

The presentation’s maps, graphs and pie charts show projections that, based on Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization figures, the tri-county area population will double by 2030. Cap Metro quotes other growth data from the controversial plan put forth by Envision Central Texas, which shows Central Texans support a “mix of mass transit and roads.”

The planners at Capital Metro seems to be pinning their hopes on hooking commuters on the value of a single rail project in order to create future demand. The presentation, while emphasizing that the Leander route is tailor-made by virtue of the existing tracks and right-of-way, takes pains to point out that there are other existing rail lines in the region, such as the U nion Pacific, MoKan, Manor-Elgin, and Burleson corridors. It touts the Northwest Line as the backbone of an eventual system of regional rail and bus transportation.

Transit staff were on hand Thursday to answer questions, but preferred to let their packaged materials do most of the talking. The presentation received mostly positive reviews from both the students and the handful of adults in the audience, though some were concerned about the cost eventually coming out of their pockets in the form of higher taxes.

Capital Metro’s show will remain on the road until Sept. 30. Cap Metro staff will make their presentations tonight at ACC’s Eastview Campus (3401 Webberville Rd.); Wednesday at Travis High School (1211 E.Oltorf); Thursday, at the Anderson Mill MUD (11500 El Salido Parkway); Monday, Sept. 27, at the Texas Department of Human Services (701 W, 51st St.); Tuesday, Sept. 28 at the William P. Hobby Building (333 Guadalupe St.); and Thursday, Sept. 30 at Leander City Hall (200 W. Willis St.). All presentations are scheduled to begin at 6:30pm.

Task force work continues . . . Betty Baker, chair of the city’s Historic Preservation Task Force, said last night she wants to hold a public hearing on proposals to change tax abatements for historic homes in Austin. Baker said she would send a letter to all neighborhood associations as well as owners of historic structures to alert them to a hearing on October 6. Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky told the task force he had made changes to figures he previously presented on the cost of applying for the tax abatements. Those new numbers suggest that the cost to the city is actually $24.25, he said, not the $15 he had previously estimated. However, the task force was unable to agree on whether the city should charge a yearly fee to those who apply for tax abatements. Some members argued that collection and bookkeeping for the fee would eliminate any gain the city might realize in setting up a new system. The matter was left unresolved . . . Meeting tonight . . . The city will host a forum this evening on the economic impact of film and related industries, and what the city can do to encourage and assist those industries. The forum will begin at 6pm in Waller Creek Plaza, Room 104. A recently released report estimates the total, local economic impact of film and visual media at about $360 million annually, and credits such media for the creation of 3,500 jobs each year. For more information, contact Jim Butler at 974-6318 . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission is scheduled to meet in Room 325 of One Texas Center. Commissioners will reconsider zoning changes on South Lamar at its intersection with Evergreen, which they had previously recommended for GR-MU-CO. That would be a downzoning for some property owners whose lots are currently zoned CS. Commissioners decided that landowners perhaps did not receive enough notice that their properties might lose their commercial zoning, and decided to hear the case again tonight . . . The Saltillo District Redevelopment Project Community Advisory Group, co-sponsored by Capital Metro and the City of Austin, will meet at noon today at Capital Metro’s downtown office, 323 Congress . . . Energy conventions meeting here . . . Austin Energy is host and co-sponsor of the 27th World Energy Engineering Congress, beginning today at the Austin Convention Center. This event is the largest energy engineering conference in the world, with more than 1,500 visitors and 150 exhibitors expected in Austin. The conference has taken place in Atlanta for the past 26 years. Austin Energy is also co-hosting the United States Combined Heat and Power Association annual workshop, which draws energy professionals and government officials to Austin to benchmark successes and create strategies to grow the nation’s number of combined heat and power installations. By increasing the number of distributed or on-site energy systems, the US can reduce its dependence on imported oil while improving security of energy plants. . . Mayor to celebrate Katz’s Deli anniversary . . . Mayor Will Wynn will deliver a proclamation to the owner of Katz’s Deli at 10:30am today, recognizing 25 years of success for the Austin business. Katz was one of seven opponents Wynn faced when he ran for Mayor last year.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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