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WilCo EOC not yet popular with cities

Tuesday, November 22, 2005 by

If Williamson County builds a multi-million dollar Emergency Operations Center, will the cities in the surrounding area come and participate? So far, the answer is not yet.

County Commissioners recently approved $20 million, along with a $6 million federal grant, to fund the project, which would be located in Georgetown and would coordinate and dispatch 911 calls throughout the county and serve as a command center in crisis situations.

The primary tenant of the EOC will be the Williamson County Sheriff’s Department. To date, Georgetown is the only municipality that has shown an interest in participation in the project. Other cities such as Round Rock, Cedar Park and Taylor are taking a wait-and-see attitude, county officials said last week.

The idea to operate a countywide EOC has been around for some time, but the current push to build one came as county officials formed a “command central” that operated as the Williamson County EOC during preparations for and during the aftermath of Hurricane Rita in October. At that time, officials were concerned that the hurricane could bring high winds and heavy rain to the area, and sought to coordinate their efforts.

County Judge John Doerfler said the center would employ digital communications technology and tie Williamson County in with EOCs already operating in Travis and Hays counties. In addition to housing necessary computers and communications gear, the facility will have administrative offices and space for conducting emergency operations.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Lisa Birkman recently led a delegation from Williamson County to visit a similar facility in Bell County to see how it operates. Bell County’s EOC serves about 250,000 people, and dispatches law enforcement, fire and EMS services for the cities of Temple, Killeen, Harker Heights, Belton and Bell County, as well as rural areas. Bell County is slightly smaller that Williamson County, which has about 317,000 residents.

Under current plans, the new facility could become the countywide communications center for emergency 911 calls. Judge Doerfler said entities such as cities with their own 911 systems could elect to join the new center, but he doesn't feel other cities need to commit to join before the EOC is built.

Once the center is built, he said, the cities operating their own 911 services will find it advantageous to join because of both efficiency and economics.

County Commissioners do not yet have a location for the facility, but will be discussing it at today’s Commissioner’s Court meeting. Officials say they will continue to work on the project over the next few weeks in hopes of firming up plans for the EOC by early next year.

UTMB, Seton to expand medical education program

The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) and Seton Healthcare Network announced an expansion of their partnership Monday that is expected to double the number of medical residents in Austin by 2010. In doing so, UTMB will help plug the gap in local health care, which Mayor Will Wynn called “an acute challenge.” Just as important to the Mayor is the chance for Austin to become a leader in medical technology.

Charles Barnett, President/CEO of Seton, and Dr. John Stobo of UTMB of Galveston made the announcement at a joint press conference. The Mayor and Council Member Lee Leffingwell joined them. Stobo was reluctant to speculate on whether Austin would eventually gain the facility necessary to make it a true branch of the medical school but said eventually there would probably be such building in Austin.

Austin is the largest city of its size in the nation without a medical school teaching campus, according to Wynn. City leaders hope that Mueller could be the home of such a campus. Wynn, among others, has pushed for the city to become a center for biotech research. He noted that while San Antonio has a booming tourism economy, the health care industry employs 100,000 people and brings in $13 billion a year to the regional economy.

Seton is currently home to 41 full-time UTMB students and expansion of the program would mean 200 residents in Austin by 2010. Although Seton has some residents from other schools, UTMB will eventually take over all training of medical doctors at Seton. Stobo said the expansion particularly benefits Austin because one in six physicians in Texas received at least some of their medical training at UTMB. He said two-thirds of those in the program could be expected to stay in the Austin area after finishing their education.

According to Greg Hartman, Seton’s senior vice-president for planning and marketing, the cost of the current program for both Seton and UTMB is about $40 million.

Dr. Garland Anderson, the head of UTMB’s obstetrics/gynecology program, said he expects to add about five residents per year in his area to eventually bring the number to 20. There are also 36 full-time internal medicine residents, he said.

UTMB planners expect to take over management of all five graduate medical education programs at Brackenridge Hospital. Those include obstetrics/gynecology, internal medicine, family medicine, pediatrics and psychiatry. In addition, the partnership intends to create new programs in neurology, general surgery, dermatology and gastroenterology.

Barnett said Seton would continue to supplement graduate education for medical students and the Medical Branch would continue to support undergraduates. Stobo said UTMB is the top school in the country for Hispanic graduates and the seventh in generating African-American physicians.

Bond Advisory panel prepares for final cuts

Open space subcommittee wants $130 million

Austin’s environmental mettle will be put to the test next Tuesday night when the Bond Election Advisory Committee decides how to squeeze a $165 million open space proposal into the limits of a $600 million bond next year.

City Manager Toby Futrell brought $800 million in requests to the Bond Election Advisory Committee. That included $50 million for open space, which open space subcommittee chair Robin Rather termed a “place holder.” Rather said she had tremendous respect for Futrell on many issues, but she couldn’t support that number.

“I do not think she submitted a number that was based on any kinds of a needs assessment,” Rather told the full committee in the final report on her subcommittee’s recommendations. “What she did was put a place marker in there. I don’t think it was particularly well thought out.”

The pressure is high on bond committee members to make cuts, even to those proposals that are nearest and dearest to them. The “homework” for Monday night was to pare down proposals in the various categories – drainage, facilities, open space, affordable housing and transportation – to no more than $600 million. Those numbers must be turned in by 5pm today, which will be the basis for a starting point for the vote next Tuesday night on the final recommendations to City Council.

The subcommittees on affordable housing and open space – chaired by Lydia Ortiz and Rather, respectively – have come in with proposals higher than initially suggested. Rather, in particular, has taken some heat from fellow committee members for suggesting cuts to other areas but proposing the $165 million figure for open space.

Last night, Rather’s subcommittee made a presentation that was pared to $130 million. Those recommendations broken down into $28 million for parks and parkland; $30 million for land acquisition along the State Highway 130 corridor; and $70 million for the acquisition of land in the critical recharge zone, some of it possibly Hays County.

Committee Member Fritz Steiner, Dean of the UT School of Architecture, outlined the goals of the subcommittee: a commitment to provide a greater degree of equity for open space in East Austin; the ability to shape planning along the SH 130 corridor; and addressing the quality of the water in the Edwards Aquifer.

Rather, who has worked to preserve the Edwards Aquifer for the last 10 years, said the numbers her subcommittee presented were the more conservative she could suggest. The original suggestion was more along the lines of $150 million for land acquisition along the aquifer. The longer the city waits, the more expensive the land gets, Rather said. The city purchased 15,000 acres out of the 1998 bond issue. The final tally, conservationists and the city agree, needs to be 40,000 to 50,000 acres.

Other committee members addressed their priorities within the open space proposal. Cynthia Medlin was committed to parklands, both inside and outside the city. She also was especially enthusiastic about the preservation of the Blackland Prairie land along SH 130. Rodney Ahart was strongly committed to the issue of equity across the city, with equality on both the east and west ends of town. And Sabrina Brown was most committed to the parkland issue, nothing that other presentations had persuaded her that other areas of the open space proposal might need cutting.

Chair Charles Urdy wanted more details about how the city would implement its plan. Given the nature of open space purchase – no one wants to give away locations for purchase, for fear of driving up land prices – the answers Urdy got were vague. City real estate specialist Junie Plummer, who handled the 1998 bond issue, noted that 7,500 acres in the aquifer recharge zone was under direct development pressure.

Both Rather and Jim Walker expressed support for a proper city-created plan for land acquisition, given the track record for city staff. Plummer said the city does have a carefully constructed matrix for prioritizing land purchases.

In the end, the open space needs will have to be measured against the needs of other subcommittee proposals. As Tom Terkel told the committee, the idea is to make sure there are plenty of winners and no losers, rather than big winners and a lot of losers. Vice Chair Amy Mok questioned how she could possibly balance the $165 million in open space needs against the other subcommittee proposals, knowing that she needed to come up with a total of $600 million in the end.

The Bond Election Advisory Committee expects a vote on final recommendations next Tuesday, based on the priorities set by each committee member.

21 Rio would stretch to 220 feet

The Planning Commission’s Codes and Ordinances subcommittee agreed last week to begin discussion of variances for a new tower at 21st Street and Rio Grande, but the subcommittee split over whether those variances should extend to a broader swath of land within the University Neighborhood Overlay.

The City Council has created an overlay for the West Campus area that acts, and functions, much like a neighborhood plan. At the’s subcommittee meeting, agent Mike McHone, representing Corinth-based Cobalt Land Development, proposed two variances to that overlay: a transfer of development rights from the historic M averick-Miller House to his tower and the use of those rights to bump the 21 Rio tower from 175 feet to 220 feet, which would put it just short of The Castilian’s height.

McHone noted that he would probably be the first of a number of variances – actually code amendments – to the UNO plan, which was described as “downtown light” zoning for the West Campus area. He said 21 Rio presented Planning Commission with a clear decision to either approve code amendments on a case-by-case basis or pass a broader code amendment aimed at a number of blocks within the overlay.

That decision split the committee. Dave Sullivan, who heads the subcommittee, is more comfortable with a grassroots approach to overlay amendments. He’d like to see McHone approach the neighborhood planning team in the area – in this case the Central Austin Neighborhood Plan Commission – and get neighborhood “buy in” into the proposal. Commissioner Gary Stegeman joined Sullivan in his neighborhood-oriented philosophy.

Chris Riley, on the other hand, was much more open to starting a discussion on a broader code amendment at the request of McHone, knowing it was only the first step in a process that would include plenty of neighborhood input before it passed Planning Commission. Mandy Dealey joined Riley in this decision, saying that she considered it a good idea to have a possible code amendment in hand to discuss with the neighborhood.

The subcommittee could agree to the variance for McHone, knowing that McHone has approached the Central Austin Neighborhood Plan Commission to initiate discussion on 21 Rio. The subcommittee agreed that Riley would approach CANPAC to ask that Mary Gay Maxwell and her group attend a future commission meeting on the height issues.

Mark Walters of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department noted that UNO, aimed at revitalizing West Campus, had resulted in a dozen projects with 955 units, compared to only 400 units over the prior 20 years. Not only had the overlay successfully stimulated growth, it also had generated money for affordable housing.

Riley said he would only support the variance if there was ground-level neighborhood-oriented use in the property. The 21 Rio project, if built up to its full 220 feet in height, would be built on a narrow 17,500-square-foot lot. That lot is now a two-story office building, next to two single-family homes, McHone said. The project would have four levels of underground parking, a first-floor retail component, plus an additional three levels of parking. That would be topped with 14 floors of residential use, totaling 178 units.

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

SOS back in action . . . The Save Our Springs Alliance (SOS) has hired former State Rep. Glen Maxey, fresh off the No Nonsense in November campaign, to head up an effort to gather 20,000 signatures in order to put charter amendments on the city ballot next May. An SOS email says the alliance is pushing two amendments, a “Save Our Springs” charter amendment that would make it the official policy of the City of Austin to protect the quality and quantity of water flows in the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer and to take actions in support of this policy, and an “Open Government Online” charter amendment that would open Austin city government to public scrutiny by requiring that most city business be carried out online, in real time, and with full right of public access and public input. C onsumers Union, Public Citizen, American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and ACLU Central Texas chapter, Independent Texans, and People for Efficient Transportation are endorsing the “Open Government Online” amendment, and SOS and Texas Public Interest Research Group (TexPIRG) are endorsing both amendments. For more information, go to . . . Politics . . . Veteran fundraiser Alfred Stanley has signed up as treasurer for the Hector Uribe campaign. Uribe is one of at least three likely candidates for Place 2 on the City Council, a spot currently held up Raul Alvarez. Alvarez has announced his intention to step down after two terms rather than try to overcome the term limit provisions of the City Charter. Uribe and Stanley are both staunch Democrats, but so is Elisa May, who has also indicated that she would run. John Hernandez has agreed to serve as her treasurer. Uribe has practiced law and government relations in Austin since 1996. He served in the Texas Legislature from 1978 to 1991. May is Executive Director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Mike Martinez, president of the Austin Association of Professional Firefighters, is also expected to make the race. With those three running, this race will be the one to watch beginning in January . . . Meetings . . . The Parks and Recreation Board will meet at 6:30pm at PARD Headquarters at 200 S. Lamar Blvd . . . The Travis County Commissioners Court meets at 9am in Commission Chambers, 314 W. 11th St. The Williamson County Commissioners meet at 9:30am in the Pct 3 JP Courtroom on Inner Loop Drive in Georgetown . . . Time off . . . In Fact Daily will take Wednesday through Friday off this week, along with many of you. Have a Happy Thanksgiving, drive carefully (if you must drive), and we will be back next week. The City of Austin and most other entities will take Thursday and Friday off

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