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Todd: hospital district deserves funds from rural counties

Monday, December 6, 2004 by

Former Mayor proposes coalition of urban districts lobby for change

It’s a long-term problem: regional trauma centers funded by local tax dollars often foot the bill for indigent emergency care for out-of-county residents. Such treatment puts a strain on the funding of urban hospital districts, while rural counties rarely contribute to cover the costs.

Although hard numbers are elusive, best estimates are that indigent patients from rural and outlying counties run up a bill of more than $100 million a year in Texas. And a healthy share of that burden is expected to fall on the Travis County Hospital District in both current and future years.

But a coalition-in-the-making, being formed by former Austin Mayor Bruce Todd, aims to lobby for Legislative relief for the problem. Todd laid out his proposal to the District’s Board of Managers Thursday night.

“I hesitate to call the current situation a crisis, but it’s safe to say it’s very problematic,” Todd said. “Urban counties are providing the cost of indigent care for patients from outlying counties, who have no health insurance but do have health care needs. One example is in Dallas County, where they spent an estimated $30 million last year on indigent care for non-Dallas County residents.”

Todd, now a lobbyist, is putting together a coalition of the state’s hospital districts and trauma centers to lobby for a more regional approach to funding indigent trauma care. He made his first pitch to join to coalition to the Travis County Hospital District last week.

“You are the first entity we have talked to about this,” Todd said. “We also expect to talk to people in Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth, El Paso, San Antonio, Lubbock and other areas that are in the same situation. It might be stretching it to say that this could cause trauma care to collapse in any of these areas, but the quality of trauma care in these areas will surely deteriorate without the necessary revenue stream to support it.“

Todd said he hopes to have all the players in place by early January so he can begin talking to elected officials. He said some preliminary talks with legislators indicate that there is a wide understanding of the problem.

“We purposely met with some of the people we thought might be reluctant to support our plan, to see what kind of opposition there would be,” he said. “While it’s difficult to make new taxation a palatable subject, they did listen to us. We didn’t get any doors shut in our face.”

The plan, according to David Hilgers, an associate of Todd’s working on the project, is to present the rural counties with a carrot-and-stick approach.

“These counties need an impetus to join a hospital district,” Hilgers said. “They are currently getting this care without any real incentive to reimburse the urban district. We need a system in place where they feel pressure on their tax base.”

The Travis County Hospital District managers, while generally having a positive reaction to the proposal, are not yet in a position to act on it, as they have yet to hire a firm to represent them before the Legislature or to formulate a strategy for the upcoming session.

That problem may be resolved tonight, as the Board’s Legislative Subcommittee, chaired by Carl Richie, will meet this morning to review firms that have bid to provide Legislative services. The full board will then meet at 6:30pm to pick a finalist and begin negotiations with a lobbyist.

Foes accuse LCRA of flaunting own rules

Readers of the Austin American Statesman opened up their morning paper on Sunday to find a full-page ad accusing the Lower Colorado River Authority of keeping a water pipeline under wraps, and then rushing to approve the project. The ad, titled “First hush-hush and now rush-rush,” was placed by the Hamilton Pool Road Scenic Corridor Coalition (HPRSCC) ahead of a 2pm Tuesday LCRA meeting, where the board is expected to give the go-ahead to the pipeline project.

Those who made it to the Statesman’s editorial page read a different message, one that echoes the LCRA’s position on the matter: “An affirmative decision by the LCRA board promises protection in an area that has precious little. Travis County’s land use authority is rather limited and betting that the Legislature will somehow reverse its antipathy to widening the county’s ability to control growth and development is an investment in long odds.”

The controversial pipeline is expected to provide water for several subdivisions planned along Hamilton Pool Road. The LCRA says it has met all of the necessary requirements to move forward with the project, but the coalition says that they are rushing the project out before their own Regional Water Quality Planning Committee completes a report on the area early next year.

Gene Lowenthal, president of the HPRSCC, said the LCRA is ignoring pleas from a large number of residents in the area, as well as almost a dozen environmental groups. “The LCRA is not listening very well,” he said. “They are much more concerned with getting a water line out on Hamilton Pool Road, and being in a partnership with development interests. They haven’t shown a lot of interest in being good partners with the community.”

Lowenthal said there is concern over high-density development brought on by the availability of water to the area, and that no wastewater system is planned for the area.

In other words, if you build the pipeline, he says, they will come. “We are concerned that the environmental protections are not in place to make sure that the dense subdivisions that are going to pop up because there is a water line, will be adequately protective of the Barton Creek Watershed,” Lowenthal said.

In May, the LCRA board did delay finalizing the project until December ( In Fact Daily, May 20, 2004), but according to Lowenthal, it was assumed that the LCRA’s own water quality planning report would be out by this time. That report—now scheduled out in February—is expected to make several suggestions regarding how the project should proceed.

The planned project is hardly a new one for LCRA General Manager Joe Beal. According to a report from the August 14, 1996 edition of In Fact, the LCRA has been planning since then to send water from Lake Austin to Dripping Springs using a 12-to-16-inch pipeline system.

Beal has said recently that that other entities, such as municipal utility districts, will step in if the LCRA fails to serve the inevitable demand for more water. The Lazy 9 MUD on Highway 71, which has a deal with the LCRA for raw water, has shown an interest in providing treated water to the Hamilton Pool Road area. Obviously, the LCRA could provide the same service, and with public financing, might be able to do it faster than a private entity.

After the May meeting, Lowenthal praised the LCRA, saying they “did some genuine listening.” But in the Sunday’s newspaper ad, the coalition claims that the LCRA has put the Hamilton Pool water line back on the fast track, and is ignoring the input of “the vast majority of Hamilton Pool, Hill Country and Central Texas residents.”

“We’ve got over 1,000 signatures on petitions from people who want the LCRA to wait for regional planning to occur,” Lowenthal said. “They want the right protections and water quality controls in place before a water line is extended down the road.”

The LCRA Board meeting planned for 2pm Tuesday at the Terrace Club, 2600 U.S. 290 West, just east of Dripping Springs.

Transit oriented zoning plan moves forward

Stakeholders to meet again next week

Plans for a new zoning category, TOD or Transit Oriented Development, are on track for consideration by the Austin City Council at the end of January. Members of the Planning Commission heard a briefing on the proposal at the most recent meeting of their Codes and Ordinances Committee.

TOD zoning would apply to areas surrounding mass transit stations, such as those along the Capital Metro rail line approved by voters on November 2. City staff has held a series of meetings with stakeholder groups, including developers, transportation planners, and environmentalists, to help shape a draft TOD ordinance set to be unveiled at the next stakeholder meeting on December 13.

While the details of the ordinance are still being worked out, it will likely include provisions for four different types of TOD zones based on the intensity of the surrounding neighborhood and the number of expected passengers at that particular transit point. The highest level, or "downtown center," would likely be reserved for the rail station at the end of the Capital Metro line near the Austin Convention Center. The second level, a "regional center," would apply to high-volume transit stops with less surrounding development, such as the one near the University of Texas Pickle Research Campus in North Austin. Lower intensity categories of "town center" and "neighborhood center" would apply to those rail stops closer to residential areas.

One way the TOD zoning would be different from existing city zoning categories is that it would contain requirements for minimum as well as maximum building heights. According to Urban Design Officer Jana McCann, those minimum heights are necessary to ensure high-density development around the transit hubs. "We're really talking about being quite intense right around the station, and then scaling down to whatever level of intensity is surrounding the overall TOD district," she said. In order to achieve that effect, the TOD category would include three separate zones: the "gateway" zone for the area closest to the transit station, the "mid-way" zone covering the area between 300 and 1,000 feet from the station, and the "transition" zone covering the outlying area.

As locations for each of the transit stations are identified, McCann envisions a process similar to the one used in creating neighborhood plans. That would also entail hiring an urban design consultant and an economic and marketing consultant, who could help determine a realistic level of development for each area. "We are committed to doing a very serious planning process to get us a station area plan," she said. Once adopted by the Capital Metro Board and the Austin City Council, those plans could be used when reviewing proposals from developers or landowners near the station.

Capital Metro representatives at the meeting stressed that no station locations have been selected so far, although the agency does have general areas along the rail lines identified as places that would likely be suitable for a station. In some cases where a single party controls significant amounts of land, the agency has already begun discussions.

Planning Commission members asked for additional details on several aspects of the TOD ordinance including provisions for neighborhood representation in drafting the plans for individual TODs, parking requirements, drainage requirements, and how the city plans to track the economic impact of new development. The commission could discuss those issues at a future meeting before the TOD ordinance goes to Council on January 27.

Wynn takes off for NYC. . . Austin Mayor Will Wynn will lead a delegation of 30 regional business leaders on a three-day visit to the Big Apple beginning today. “We’re going there to attract investment to Austin and meet with existing investors of Austin,” said Wynn. The trip includes a luncheon session with Rich Bernstein, chief U.S. Strategist for Merrill Lynch, media interviews, calls on site consultants and meetings with key corporate executives. In addition to seeking new business, the Mayor said delegates would visit companies that are currently invested in Austin and encourage them to expand their Austin presence . . . Sisters’ lawsuit back on the docket? . . . A lawsuit filed by the Champion sisters against the City of Austin that has been on hold for the past several months could be re-activated now that the City Council has refused a zoning change for three tracts owned by the family at RM 2222 and Loop 360. However, the Council did vote 6-1, with Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman opposed, to lift trip limitations and restrictions on square footage on the northeast corner of the intersection. The Council rejected zoning changes for the other parcels on a vote of 6-1, with Council Member Danny Thomas the lone vote in opposition. "We now need to begin to undertake discovery and pursue the litigation in an active manner, which we had put on hold for this process," said attorney Michael Whellan, who represents the sisters . . . Jealousy revealed . . . Former Mayor Bruce Todd can admit to a little envy when it comes to the new City Hall digs. Todd first addressed city leaders as a department head back in 1972, when the council chambers were in the City Hall on Eighth Street in the spot where the City Manager’s offices are now. The annex on Second Street, Todd remembers, was built by Roy Butler and only intended to be a two- to three-year fix. It would be another 30 years before a new City Hall would open. And what does Todd envy the most in the new City Hall? “I am jealous because there’s a restroom in the Mayor’s office, and you don’t have to worry about being lobbied at the urinal,” said Todd, with a laugh . . . Chamber forecast . . . Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce will present "An Economic Forecast for Small Business", Wednesday at 4:30pm at the Hyatt Regency Austin, 208 Barton Springs Road. Three of the leading economic experts in Texas, Ray Perryman, Jon Hockenyos and Billy Hamilton, promise an early outlook on 2005. Non-members of the Chamber of Commerce will pay a small fee for attendance . . . Like money in the bank. . . The University of Texas last week won unanimous approval from the Council to rezone 46 acres near MoPac Blvd. and US 183 from P (public) to CH (commercial highway). That clears the way for the school's deal with the Simon Property Group to develop the Shops at Arbor Walk, a mixed-use development with a strong retail component. "This property now, except for a small portion, is tax exempt," said Jim Wilson, UT's Director of Campus Real Estate. "This will generate literally millions of dollars of ad valorem taxes on the land and the improvements, and the sales taxes will also be very significant for the city." . . . Busy lawyer “recycles”. . . Attorney Terry Irion was front and center at last weekt’s Brandt Road annexation case, representing the three homeowners’ associations who favored the annexation. Asked what was new, Irion said he was recycling his cases, which was his way of saying that the Sunset Valley Lowe’s case is now set for trial. The case, styled Sunset Valley and Save Our Springs Alliance v. Lowe’s and the City Austin, will go to trial on Jan. 10 . . . Tonight’s meetings . . . The Design Commission will meet in the 11th floor conference room of One Texas Center at 5:45pm . . . The Music Commission will meet at 6pm in Room 325 of One Texas Center . . . The Arts Commission is set to meet in Room 105 of Waller Creek Plaza at 6:30pm . . . The Travis County Hospital District Board will meet, as noted above, at 6:30pm tonight..

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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