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Hospital district chooses well-known lobby team

Tuesday, December 7, 2004 by

District to join coalition of urban districts to change rules

The Travis County Hospital District, officially only two months old, is jumping into the political arena in a big way. The district’s Board of Managers voted last night to tentatively choose a governmental affairs consultant – a/k/a lobbyist—and to become the first entity to sign on with a coalition to take the issue of regional trauma center reimbursement to the Legislature.

A subcommittee of the Board, including Chair Clarke Heidrick, Vice Chair Carl Richie, Member Donald Patrick, Interim Director Jim Collins and Travis County Purchasing Agent Cyd Grimes, heard presentations from six firms and individuals earlier Monday for the lobby post. Patrick said the group spent about 45 minutes with each candidate, then compared notes. In the end, he said, the group selected HillCo Partners LLC of Austin to recommend to the District board.

“We were looking for the firm that had the longest track record, showed the most strength and the best connections in the areas we are concerned about,” Patrick said. “HillCo came out on top of a very, very close decision. We really wanted to hire all of them.”

HillCo’s presentation was made by principals Buddy Jones and Marsha Jones (not related). Longtime lobbyist Bill Miller is also a principal in the firm. HillCo represents a long list of clients, including many in health care and related fields.

Patrick said as part of its decision, the committee also recommended that the main lobby firm, HillCo, be instructed to subcontract a portion of the district’s work to a firm or individual that qualifies as a HUB, or historically underutilized business.

Patrick said the committee was very impressed with the part of a presentation made by Jaime Capelo, a retiring House member from Corpus Christi, who chaired the House Public Health Committee during the last session. Capelo was defeated in the Democratic primary earlier this year after scandal involving an alleged $100,000 kickback tainted his campaign.

The board voted unanimously to name Vice Chair Richie and Interim Director Collins to begin negotiations with HillCo, including the stipulation that they subcontract a portion of the work to a qualified HUB firm or individual. They are to report back to the board at its December 16 meeting with a proposed contract.

If HillCo is confirmed as the district’s lobby firm, it will already have one major issue on the table to deal with. In other action Monday, the district board approved a motion to support the efforts of former Austin Mayor Bruce Todd and others to form a coalition to take the issues of reimbursement equity for regional trauma centers to the next Legislature. (See In Fact Daily, Dec. 6, 2004.)

Several members of the board noted that the issue of outlying counties not contributing to the cost of care for its indigent citizens treated at urban trauma centers was prominently mentioned as a key issue in the creation of the Travis County Hospital District. Todd says his group plans to form a coalition of 20 or more entities, including hospital districts, not-for-profit hospitals, for-profit hospitals and others, to take the reimbursement issue to the Legislature for some relief when it meets in January.

“The bill could come in the form of a requirement that counties use tax dollars to pay for the services, or it might include something new – the ability of outlying counties to join a hospital district,” Todd said. “It won’t be easy to get people to agree to pay for something that they get for free now, but we intend to pursue it as an equity issue. You can be sure that “equity” will be part of our name.”

The board passed a motion backing Todd’s efforts to form the coalition, but stopped short of committing any funds to the effort. Todd told the board that he will be requesting about $10,000 from each participant, but will not come back to ask for money until his efforts to form the coalition have reached a “critical mass.” He expects to know if the coalition will be viable by sometime early in January.

SOS loses Lazy 9 suit; Bunch ordered to pay

Group said Legislature acted inappropriately in allowing MUD creation

The Save Our Springs Alliance lost its bid to block a municipal utility district from providing water from Lake Travis to hundreds of planned new homes in southwest Travis County Monday. SOS had sued the Lazy 9 Municipal Utility District, but visiting District Judge William Bender rejected all of the environmental group's claims. Furthermore, he ruled that SOS would have to pay around $200,000 in attorneys’ fees and penalized attorney Bill Bunch $5,000 for filing a frivolous lawsuit.

The Lazy 9 MUD will provide water for the Sweetwater residential development planned by Bill Gunn and his partners along Texas Highway 71. SOS is interested in how that new construction would impact Bee Creek and Little Barton Creek, and how further development in the future could affect the Lake Travis, Pedernales, and Barton Springs watersheds.

SOS argued in court that the public had been denied notice of the MUD's creation and an opportunity for input. They also claimed that the district was actually a front for the developers and that the state law creating the MUD was an improper transfer of government powers. But Bender ruled in favor of the MUD across the board. "I find that the Lazy 9 MUD is in all respects a properly created government agency," he said. Defense counsel Mike McKetta had argued that the action of the Legislature creating the MUD was proper, and that SOS lacked standing to challenge it because such claims can only be made by a duly selected agent of the state in a quo warranto proceeding, a hearing challenging the legitimacy of a government official or agency.

Bunch, who is executive director of SOS, expressed disappointment with the ruling, which he said avoided the heart of his group's arguments. "We argued that, in essence, this district is not really a legitimate government agency…that it's really just for the private benefit of the developers in providing them a financing tool for delivering utilities to their property, and also to gain access to the public powers of condemnation," Bunch said after the ruling. To help boost their case, SOS relied on testimony from expert witnesses, testimony from Lazy 9 MUD Board Members, and information contained in a special series of reports from the Dallas Morning News called "Government By Developer".

None of that swayed the judge, however, who characterized the entire lawsuit as frivolous. After his ruling against the plaintiffs, both sides spent the next two hours presenting witnesses and arguments over whether the Lazy 9 MUD should receive attorneys’ fees or other damages. Developer Ed Horne testified that the lawsuit had caused concern for his lenders, forcing his group to renegotiate the terms of the deal to buy the property at the last minute in order to make their closing deadline. "We had to come up with $6 million more in equity," he said, adding that the additional costs for interest payments alone totaled approximately $600,000.

Lazy 9’s McKetta argued that SOS had filed the lawsuit with the improper purposes of interfering with the developers' ability to close their deal and delaying the creation of the MUD. He even took the stand to testify in the case under questioning from fellow defense attorney Michael Whellan. "I believe you did not have the proper authority to file this lawsuit," he told SOS attorney Bill Bunch. McKetta then criticized Bunch for failing to provide a list of SOS's Board of Directors or a record of their vote authorizing the suit. Bunch countered that the group's officials are clearly listed on the SOS web site, and pointed out that McKetta knew several of them through his professional experience as a lawyer in Austin.

Bunch then took the witness stand to explain the rationale behind the suit. In his closing arguments he told the judge that SOS had a valid purpose for each of the claims made. "There is nothing in the original record to suggest our original petition was frivolous," Bunch said. "There's nothing to suggest an improper purpose of delaying the MUD or interfering with the closing."

But Judge Bender ruled in favor of the defendants. He ordered SOS to pay at least $199,000, with provisions for altering the amount required of SOS depending upon how many appeals the group files. Bunch told reporters afterward that any appeal of the ruling would be up to the Board. In the meantime, SOS will only have to pay an appeal bond, which can be set at no more than 50 percent of the group's net worth. Bunch was also personally sanctioned $5,000, which was less than the $7,500 sanction requested by McKetta.

"I hope it is humiliating," McKetta said of the sanctions. "The damage that was done (to my clients) is measured in the millions (of dollars). We think $7,500 is neither too high nor too low. When a lawyer causes this much harm, people in Texas wonder how they got away with it." Bunch, outside the courtroom, said he would definitely appeal the sanction. "It's a rare thing to happen," he said. "In this instance, we fell like it's entirely inappropriate."

LCRA chief defends agency's pipeline plan

Beal says others will offer water without safeguards

A request for a new water pipeline along Hamilton Pool Road will go to the LCRA's Board of Directors at a special meeting today, despite growing calls for the LCRA to postpone any decision on extending service to that portion of southwest Travis County. Local elected officials and environmental groups are joining the coalition of neighborhood associations urging the LCRA to wait for the results of a regional planning process. But on Monday, agency officials defended their decision to present the matter to the board for consideration today.

The board decided earlier this year to grant a postponement of several months to allow the regional planning process to proceed. "The point was made by the public that there was a planning process underway and that the process would be complete this month," said LCRA General Manager Joe Beal. "So our board asked us to bring it back this month so that the plan that was to be in place could be considered before the board took action. It's December, the plan is still underway, and there are no results that our board can consider at this point." While those who want the decision delayed cite that same point, Beal says the staff's report to the board today will point out the possible dangers of inaction.

"This area is going to develop in the future," he said, noting that those homeowners could turn to municipal utility districts (MUDs) or well water to meet their needs. Neither of those options, he said, would include the level of regulatory oversight and environmental protection that the LCRA can offer. "We have a unique opportunity here at the LCRA to, in essence, trade water supply for environmental controls that the owners are willing to place on their lands," Beal said. "The result will be a series of development restrictions that are even more strict (than) the SOS Ordinance. We believe that as stewards of the resources of this area, we have found a very good way to protect the environment while providing basic utilities that this inevitable population will need."

Critics of the proposed water line claim it will facilitate the development of hundreds of new homes in the environmentally sensitive region, leading to increased runoff in nearby creeks and bringing more traffic to streets that are

ill-equipped to handle it.

For example, yesterday Council Member Daryl Slusher wrote a letter to the board, warning them that a decision today to move forward with water line along Hamilton Pool Road could lead to the permanent closure of Barton Springs Pool.

Urging them to delay their decision, Slusher wrote, “Your decision could be the most important factor in the future of this portion of the Edwards Aquifer, Barton Springs and other creeks and streams that are the lifeblood of the beloved is Hill Country in this region."

Slusher is in his final year of nine on the City Council. Protection of Barton Springs has been the most salient factor of his legacy. In his plea to the board, Slusher wrote, "There can be little doubt that a water line will intensify development over this fragile area. In fact, the finances of the line depend on massive new development. A vote to extend the pipeline before adequate protections are in place puts the Hill Country in great peril.”

Slusher and Hays County Judge Jim Powers put together the regional planning group now expected to have a plan in February. Slusher wrote, “In my view, it would be tragic to ignore the many citizens involved in this process by extending the pipeline at this time."

Margot Clarke, who is outreach coordinator for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club and is running for Place 3 in next year’s Council election, also wrote to the board, urging them to delay their vote. Clarke said she was not writing on behalf of the state chapter but added that the Sierra Club’s Austin Chapter had sent a letter requesting delay, as did other environmental organizations.

Others have accused the LCRA of ignoring the groundswell of opposition from surrounding neighborhoods, a charge which Beal said caught the agency by surprise. "We have spent a tremendous amount of time trying to communicate with all the public. We have had several open houses, we've invited the public to come to special board meetings to address our board, we invited the public to come to the May board meeting, we've invited the public to come to the board meeting today," said Beal.

The agency has allotted a set amount of time for public comment at today's meeting, with most of that time being set aside for speakers selected in advance. That will allow several different groups with different perspectives to express themselves. Individuals will be allowed to sign a card at the meeting indicating they desire to speak on the subject, but only 20 people from that group will be selected. Those names will be chosen at random from the list of interested speakers, and each will be given three minutes to make their case. The meeting begins at 2pm at The Terrace Club, 2600 Highway 290 West, just east of Dripping Springs.

Town Hall meeting . . . Council Members Raul Alvarez and Danny Thomas host a Town Hall Meeting at 6pm tonight on the proposed Community Preservation & Revitalization Zone in East Austin. The meeting, to be held at the Conley-Guererro Senior Activity Center, 808 Nile Street, is also posted as a gathering of the Community Development Commission, a majority of which may attend . . . Statue of Jesus a problem for Jesus . . . One of Jesus Olivares’ most interesting controversies during his short tenure as city manager of Eagle Pass has been a tangle over Jesus, as in Jesus Christ. Olivares left the top job in Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department last January to be city manager in his hometown of Eagle Pass. Now, Eagle Pass is having a heck of a time trying to figure out how to dispose of a life-size fiberglass Jesus – minus the cross – that was found in the Rio Grande and has been stored ever since in the police department’s evidence room. Now, with Jesus unclaimed, the police department is in the delicate position of figuring out how to dispose of the property. In an Associated Press article, Olivares said the city would donate the statue to a worthy charity at tonight’s Council meeting . . . Today’s board meetings . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission will meet at 6pm in Room 325 of One Texas Center …The Comprehensive Plan Committee of the Planning Commission will meet at 6pm in Room 500 of One Texas Center . . The MBE/WBE Advisory Committee will meet at 6pm at the SMBR office, 4100 Ed Bluestein Blvd . . . Water yield study of Barton Springs segment available . . . The Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District has completed its study of groundwater available for use, known as a sustainable yield study. The staff assembled a groundwater model advisory team and conducted workshops and presentations to technical specialists and stakeholder groups before arriving at their findings. They concluded, among other things, that the sustainable pumping limit during severe drought periods is 10 cfs. To view the entire report, visit the web site, at . . . Airport report . . . Passenger traffic has increased by more than 8 percent over last year, according to the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport October report. However, air cargo is down .3 percent, compared to October 2003. But the worst news is that international air cargo is down 51 percent. General aviation operations are down 29 percent, according to ABIA officials . . . High hopes for Johnston . . . Superintendent Pat Forgione announced Monday that AISD will seek an Innovative Redesign Grant from the Texas Education Agency to again make Johnston High School “the Pride of the East Side.” He said the district would work with national experts to help increase student achievement at the high school, which was rated Academically Unacceptable by TEA for 2004. Forgione said he expects Johnston to be one of the recipients of TEA’s the Innovative Redesign Grants next February. . . Ceremony for a local hero . . . Gary Schultz is getting a hero’s welcome at Williamson County Commissioners Court today. Schultz, a deputy constable and mental health specialist with Precinct 1, has been deployed with the United States Army in Iraq for the past year. While Schultz is home on leave, Constable Gary Griffin has arranged for the county to present him with a medal of honor. Schultz is a Sergeant First Class with the 124th Calvary Division in the National Guard in Waco. He was deployed in January 21, 2004, to Camp Anaconda just north of Baghdad where his platoon is assigned escort detail for supplies and personnel to forward operating bases. His platoon of 30 men has suffered two casualties resulting from ambushes, and he was in a substantial fire fight in May. He returns to active duty in Iraq on December 13.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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