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Mental health left out of hospital district budget

Wednesday, September 14, 2005 by

Judge Herman pleads for inclusion

The Travis County Hospital District will enter its first full budget year without a line item for mental health care services, a point which brought Judge Guy Herman to yesterday’s budget vote at the Travis County Commissioners Court.

Herman, who launched the petition drive for the hospital district, considered the need for mental health care services for both children and adults to be the key reason for the creation of the district. Addressing commissioners and the hospital district yesterday, Herman said that the situation for psychiatric care in Travis County remains dire, even worse than when he launched his petition drive to create the district.

Austin is the only major urban area in the state without dedicated psychiatric beds, Herman said. The beds at the Austin State Hospital – which serves a 43-county area – have decreased, rather than increased, under recent legislation. The Austin Police Department has decided, as of October 1, it will no longer transport psychiatric patients to out-of-town psychiatric facilities. And, most recently, Herman has begun to hear rumors that psychiatric beds will not be part of the plans for the additional space at Brackenridge Hospital once the Dell Children’s Hospital moves to the Mueller site.

“I say the community needs psychiatric emergency services, both at private hospitals and public hospitals like they do in Harris County, Dallas and Fort Worth,” Herman said. “When a person comes in, we need a temporary way to deal with them while we’re waiting for how we can deal with a longer-term commitment.”

Total expenditures for the hospital district, approved unanimously by the Court, will be $121.1 million for 2006. Of that total, $47 million is set aside for pass-through expenditures, providing a net budget of $74 million for the upcoming year. The budgeted reserves will be $13.2 million, of which $9.4 million is unallocated. That’s about 11 percent of the budget. The tax rate will remain at 7.79 cents per hundred-dollar valuation.

Don Zimmerman, who opposed the hospital district and is now a declared candidate against Rep. Mark Strama (D-Austin), was on hand to protest the tax rate. The rate might remain the same, but property values have gone up, Zimmerman said, so the tax bill increases. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty acknowledged Zimmerman’s argument, but Commissioner Karen Sonleitner protested, saying values in her neighborhood had reached market value and remained flat for a number of years. She said her property tax payment is steady. Zimmerman would simply be paying taxes on a property that was valued at less than market rate in the past and would continue to increase until it reaches market rate, she said.

Sherri Fleming, executive director of Health and Human Services, came with her own request of the hospital district during the budget hearing. The county is losing a federal grant for The Children’s Partnership, which provides mental health services to children. To Fleming, the grant is critical. Low-cost mental health care services often are provided only when the child enters the system, be it the juvenile justice system or children’s protective services, Fleming told the court.

Fleming requested a $248,000 contribution from the hospital district, which is only a portion of the money and services provided by member agencies in the collaborative.

Clarke Heidrick, president of the Travis County Hospital District’s board of managers, expressed some reluctance about spending more money on mental health services without an increase in property taxes. The district did not gain a single new dollar when the tax base was converted to the hospital district’s jurisdiction, Heidrick said. While Heidrick acknowledged the need, he also stressed the importance of moving carefully to make sure new expenditures match the joint priorities of the hospital district and the county.

Heidrick said he could not make the split-second decision on The Children’s Partnership at a court hearing but would have to take it back to his full board of managers. Sonleitner urged the hospital district to consider additional funding for mental health services, especially given the increase in tax base that would likely come with the Home Depot call center, The Domain and the Freescale project.

County Judge Sam Biscoe set the issue of the funding of The Children’s Partnership for the county agenda on Sept. 27 and asked the hospital board to come back with some answers on whether it could support funding for the project. The hospital district’s board of managers meets on Thursday evening.

Visitors bureau scrambles to help trade shows

Employees at the Austin Convention and Visitor’s Bureau (ACVB) will not soon forget the last two weeks. As Convention Center workers scrambled to turn the Convention Center into a home for more than 4,000 evacuees of Hurricane Katrina, the ACVB was working to relocate trade shows and meetings planned for the same facility.

ACVB President and CEO Bob Lander says, in addition, the ACVB’s 43 full-time and 30 part-time employees began to work with the New Orleans visitors’ bureau since the evacuation of the Gulf Coast.

At that point, the ACVB’s job was “to assist customers who were booked in New Orleans,” to rebook those conventions in Austin if possible. “And we’re still doing that in a lot of cases,” Lander said. In fact, he is working with eight to nine different meeting and convention accounts that may relocate to Austin if appropriate space is available. But the bureau’s job became radically different—and more difficult when the Convention Center was chosen as a temporary home for Hurricane Katrina evacuees.

“We, as a team—the city, the center, the ACVB—were all interested in making sure that folks who were transplanted to Austin through no fault of their own are well taken care of,” Lander said. But it is important to remember that the Convention Center’s clients make 50-60 percent of their income from such shows.

Saving the business that was scheduled for the Convention Center, keeping as much of it as possible in Austin, became the ACVB’s top priority. That meant finding new locations for more than 20 meetings and trade shows, all over a holiday weekend, that were scheduled not only for the Convention Center but for Palmer Auditorium. The latter was used as temporary medical facility for evacuees beginning on September 3. Palmer is now back in business, with the first scheduled events beginning on Friday. Both the Austin Book and Paper Show, Friday and Saturday, and a City-wide Garage Sale, Saturday and Sunday, will occur as planned, according to the city’s Public Information Office.

But Lander and his staff have been dealing with some very nervous trade show and convention planners. “So we had to find alternate trade show and meeting space for those events and we did,” Lander said, noting that he and two other top ACVB officials left their home and cell phone numbers on the office message system so they could be reached over the long weekend.

Lander estimates that the City of Austin lost about $1 million in revenue from the trade shows that moved to other area venues—still a lot less than would have been lost if those shows had been cancelled. Two shows, the Texas Home and Garden show and the meeting of 3,000 members of the Catholic Diocese, will be rescheduled, Lander said. City officials say they will ask the federal government to reimburse those losses.

The next big event, which includes significant display space and 4,000 conventioneers, can go forward with the reduced use of the Convention Center.

City Manager Toby Futrell has estimated that the number being housed there will fall to around 500 by week’s end. As of Tuesday morning, the city reported the evacuee population at the center had fallen to 1,076—about one-quarter of the number originally housed there.

Next week, Lander said, the Convention Center will host SWANA, the Solid Waste Association of North America, with its displays of landfill compactors and other very large items. SWANA will bring more than 4,000 visitors to Austin, he said. Most of those involved in conventions have been “extremely laudatory of the efforts we’ve made in Austin. They wanted to do anything they could to stay here,” he said. Lander said the ACVB brought in those involved in making the association’s convention arrangements, meeting with them throughout last weekend. “And it looks like we’ll make it work one way of the other.”

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Watson begins campaign . . . Former Mayor Kirk Watson officially kicked off his campaign Senate District 14 yesterday, announcing a string of endorsements any Democratic candidate would envy: His backers include the Austin Police Association, Texas Public Employees Association (TPEA), and AFSCME Texas (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees). The Austin Association of Professional Firefighters joined the list after a vote on the matter last night, according to union President Mike Martinez. Senator Gonzalo Barrientos announced that he would not seek re-election last week . . . No changes for housing policy . . . Board Members of the City of Austin Housing Authority have decided against changing the agency's rules to put Hurricane Katrina evacuees at the top of the waiting list for public housing units here. A federal agency had recommended a change allowing public housing tenants from Louisiana who were displaced by the storm to move to the front of the line in other cities Instead, Board Members will use a non-profit group to set aside approximately $250,000 for hurricane evacuees, allowing up to 300 families to find housing in the private sector for 60 days . . . County to open second health clinic . . Travis County continues its so-far successful efforts to counter rising employee health care costs with the opening today of a second Employee Wellness and Health Clinic, this one in the Del Valle area in southeast Travis County. The County already operates one clinic downtown where employees and their families can manage their health and avoid major illness. Proactive and preventive care can reduce health care costs, according to Dan Mansour, Travis County Risk and Benefits Manager, who oversees the County’s employee health insurance funds. A third clinic at the County’s building at 5501 Airport Boulevard is also being designed. . . Meetings . . .The Solid Waste Advisory Commission meets at 6:30pm in Room 105 at the Waller Creek Building . . . The Planning Commission’s Neighborhood Planning Committee meets at 6:30pm in room 240 at One Texas Center . . . Disaster planning seminar . . . The city, in cooperation with several local agencies, is sponsoring the Fifth Annual Emergency Preparedness Conference today at Advanced Micro Devices headquarters on Oltorf Street East of I-35. The conference, which begins at 8:30am, will focus on the impact of natural disasters on business and public service operations in Central Texas and how local businesses, government leaders and citizens can best prepare for such an event. The conference is presented by the Travis County Local Emergency Planning Committee, hosted by AMD/Spansion, and supported by the City of Austin, local companies, consultants, and vendors from the Greater Austin area. The cost of the program is $40 for walk-in registrations, which will be accepted upon availability.

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