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County tells health district to cut $1 million

Thursday, September 7, 2006 by

The Travis County Healthcare District must decide today how it intends to cut another $1 million from its proposed budget, a budget that will return to County Commissioners for approval next week with a tax rate no more than 6 percent above the effective rate.

Healthcare district officials met with commissioners individually to discuss the budget before a vote was taken on Tuesday. Chair Clarke Heidrick, in his presentation, acknowledged the sticking point: a one-time $30 million windfall from the federal government that a cautious healthcare district board wanted to roll into reserves.

One-time funding, in traditional budgetese, is intended for one-time spending. When it comes to health care for the poor – where the needs are almost unlimited – that’s kind of caution is especially true. The goal is to be prudent, Heidrick said.

"The truth is we're going to spend $2.8 million of that (total), roughly 10 percent of it, in this year's budget. It's already in the budget to be spent," Heidrick said. "Beyond that we feel that it is inappropriate to commit reserve dollars to operating programs because those programs come back to you next year and you're going to bleed yourself to death if you spend your reserves on those."

Property taxes are only 40 percent of the healthcare district’s budget. Major funding also comes from the state’s tobacco settlement and Seton lease. In the full scheme of things, a $1 million cut may not be big on a budget of $146 million, except that the district is eager to move forward with new ventures such as expanded psychiatric care and revamping the former Children’s Hospital space at Brackenridge. The group also anticipates a one-time $4 million hit from the state, which also has set budget-cutting measures.

County Judge Sam Biscoe proposed cutting $1 million from the budget, saying it was difficult for him to reconcile the idea of coming so close to hitting the roll-back tax rate. Commissioner Margaret Gomez agreed, expressing some sympathy for the district but saying that the group could roll out changes, "just slower" than anticipated.

Commissioner Karen Sonleitner was more sympathetic, trying to find a compromise with substitute motion to cut $500,000 from the budget. She blamed the city, in part, for some of the escalating costs of the health district, a concern the county shared in its own contracts. She suggested the county may be breaking with the city on some public health measures, pulling certain aspects of the current contract in-house at the county.

"You are seeing the cost of those services provided by the City of Austin in the clinics go way up. Almost like it was flat and then it jumped. And we are seeing that in our budget as well, in terms of our relationship and the cost of them doing things on our behalf," Sonleitner said. "And in the same way, we're having discussions in the same way that they are in terms of what is the long-term strategy of some of those relationships. On health and human services, we have made some strategic decisions to talk about some things that we agreed with, some things we didn't. We said you know what, we need to bring that in house, we need to figure out ways that we can control our test destiny, control our costs."

Sonleitner found a surprising ally in Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who opposed the creation of the hospital district but was willing to give some latitude, now that the district was created, to initiate some additional spending for new programs and expenditures. Once it was apparent that Sonleitner would not find allies on the court, however, he sided with the majority and voted for the $1 million cut.

Biscoe noted he was comfortable making the cut because it would preserve a significant portion of the current stream of services. He also urged the healthcare district, in his motion, to make the cuts as far away for client services as possible. Both Biscoe and Gomez stressed the need to take their fiduciary responsibility, as the hospital district’s oversight committee, seriously during the budget process.

Under the proposal, the healthcare district would set a tax rate of 7.34 cents per hundred-dollar valuation. That’s lower than the current rate of 7.97 cents because of the rise in property values, and the addition of new property to the county’s tax rolls. The hospital district already has had both public hearings on its budget but will meet at 3:30pm today at the district headquarters at 1111 E. Cesar Chavez. to consider the commissioners’ decision. The proposed budget will return to the county commissioners next Tuesday.

Homeowners win waiver for demolition

Council members were forced to decide last week if the demolition of a house in Bryker Woods was merely an accident by an out-of-town contractor or a deliberate attempt to circumvent the city’s building regulations. City staff and several Bryker Woods neighbors strongly argued at Council for the latter.

In the end, the Council voted 6-1 to approve the waiver allowing a 3,000-square-foot, two story home to be built at 1508 W. 30th St. But some Council members said the timeline of events presented by the applicant led them to believe that all was not on the up-and-up in this case.

"It seems to me that the demolition here occurred without a proper permit," said Council Member Lee Leffingwell. "And it doesn’t seem like there will be any repercussions for the builder. Since the city does not license builders, there is nothing punitive we can do."

The owners, Jenna Cundy and Eric Chrisler, said they had originally planned to add a second story to the original structure on the lot, a one-story bungalow about 1,500 square feet. Because the final structure would have exceeded size limitations by 545 square feet, the couple applied for a waiver to the size limit.

The original plan, they said, was to remove the roof on the existing structure, expand the house upwards, and complete the project, maintaining the look and feel of the original house. In February, they obtained a remodeling permit for the project.

Cundy said they hired a contractor, a company run by her father, to remove the roof and prepare the structure for remodeling. She said she and her husband went out of town for a week in June, and when they returned, the entire structure had been demolished.

"The contractor had discovered while removing the roof that the lower part of the structure was not sound enough to support a second story," Cundy said. "So, not being used to the regulations here in Austin, the contractor proceeded to take the house down to its foundation and begin re-framing it."

She said the project was red-tagged by the city on Aug. 4, and the owners were told they needed to go back and get a demolition permit to process.

Several neighbors, however, said the whole process seemed to be a ruse to avoid getting the proper city permit and ultimately build a larger house.

"We feel victimized by this," said neighborhood resident Joyce Basciano. "They are taking advantage of this in order to build a house that just doesn’t fit into the neighborhood. Should they be rewarded with a waiver for their actions? Consider the message that would send to the development community if you approve this."

Some felt it was clear the owners knew about the structure problems with the lower floor before hiring the contractor, only to be out of the town and unavailable when the "mistake" was made.

"This process clearly lacks integrity," said Katherine Hawkins. "They demolished the home without a proper permit, then they framed out a new house without a permit."

Chrisler told the Council that despite the demolition problem, the home was proceeding according to its original plan, and that when built, the final home will look just like the building would have had they just added a second story.

He said his grounds for applying for the waiver include: the development limitation imposes an undue hardship due to the time and money already put into the project and that it will not harm the public health, safety and welfare.

He added that most of the 545 extra square feet would be contained in closed porches on both floors of the structure and that the actual living space was the same as the original plan.

"I think that there was a real misunderstanding here," said Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley. "I know it is unfortunate, but I don’t believe it was malicious or criminal."

Council members approved the waiver request with Leffingwell the lone dissenting vote.

ZAP tells 620 landowner to wait on zoning

The owner of two lots on North FM 620 will likely have to wait a while longer to develop his property under city zoning guidelines. Ali Bahrami went before the Zoning and Platting Commission to request a zoning change from I-RR and DR (development reserve) to CS in order to build a new shopping center at 15,400 and 15,402 North FM 620 about 3,000 feet from the planned intersection with SH-45, but members of the ZAP rejected that request, saying the time was not yet right to zone the tracts.

The site is within the city’s limited-purpose jurisdiction, but does not have city water or wastewater service. It is currently occupied with a mixture of uses including a used car lot, pottery sales, and a mobile home which were put into place when the tracts were in an unincorporated area of Travis County.

"You have uses now that are more permissive than you probably could get with zoning," ZAP Chair Betty Baker told Bahrami. "You can continue what you’re doing, except for outdoor storage, for ten years. Hopefully by then there will be a roadway, some utilities, and full-purpose annexation." Baker said the site was ideal for DR, development reserve, which was designed for "land that is not ready for development…where the services are not in place to provide the uses that you’re needing."

Other members of the commission felt the site was appropriate for some type of zoning given the level of traffic on FM 620. "He’s got highway frontage," Commissioner Keith Jackson argued. "The improvements on SH-45 and 620 are taking place east of his property…so you can, with some degree of certainty, say there’s going to be little change in front of his property as far as the roadway is concerned."

Instead of keeping the property as DR, Jackson urged his fellow commissioners to support a change to LR. "I think we have a gentleman that owns property and has the right to come in and make a request," he said, "and I don’t think it’s appropriate when the city’s taking the action to annex him in for us to say, ‘because the city won’t give him water and sewer, we won’t give him zoning’. I think any of us can make a case that LR is an appropriate use along the frontage of 620."

Jackson argued the region was poised for further development, with the completion of SH-45 through FM 620. "Right across the street from this property, we’ve already zoned that to more intensive than the central business district in Austin," he said. "It is completely unfettered."

The vote on Jackson’s motion was 4-3 in favor. Although that was a majority of the commissioners present, it takes 5 votes for a motion to pass, so the motion failed. The Commission then voted 7-1 to keep the property DR and I-RR, with Commissioner Stephanie Hale opposed. Commissioner Teresa Rabago was off the dais and Commissioner James Shieh was absent.

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Town Hall meeting tonight . . . Council Member Mike Martinez will visit with East Austin residents at a town hall meeting at 7pm tonight at the Conley-Guererro Senior Activity Center. State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley, and Council Members Lee Leffingwell, Brewster McCracken and Sheryl Cole will join him. The meeting will focus on highlights of the proposed city budget and upcoming bond package . . . Literacy Day . . . Capital Metro co-hosts a news conference at Cepeda Library with the Literacy Coalition and the Austin Public Library in support of International Literacy Day. State Rep. Donna Howard and Council Member Cole will speak at the library at 9am to encourage Austin citizens to volunteer their time and teach others to read. Other speakers include representatives from Capital Metro, AT&T and an on-going literacy class student . . . Fix 290 Coalition . . . The Fix 290 Coalition is sponsoring a community forum tonight on solutions for the intersection of US 290 and SH 71 in Oak Hill. The forum will feature a guest speaker from the Houston group Stop TxDOT Now, which successfully stopped TxDOT from building elevated frontage lanes through their neighborhood. The Fix 290 Coalition supports an alternative to TxDOT's proposal for massive, elevated toll lanes through Oak Hill. The group meets at 7pm at the ACC Pinnacle Campus . . . Grocery makes Third Street more like home . . . AMLI and City Hall denizens alike will cheer the appearance of the Royal Blue Grocery on Third Street next door to the Wich Wich. Co-owner George Scariano was behind the counter Wednesday, noting that although shelves were sparsely covered they would be full when he gets more deliveries on Friday. Handy but hard to find in the area, we found an assortment of bottles of wine, a toothbrush, cans of tuna, gourmet cookies, cigarettes and cheese. Scariano and partner Craig Staley intend to provide gourmet meals, fresh produce and various convenience items as well as the usual snacks. He says the store will be open seven days a week from 7am to midnight . . . Bond campaign kickoff planned . . . Planning Commissioner Chris Riley sent out an email yesterday to prospective supporters of the city’s proposed $567 million bond package. Riley notes that the "seven-part bond package is the result of more than a year of work by a citizen advisory committee, with input from thousands of citizen advocates," and includes "strategic investments in critical needs like roads, parks, open space, housing, libraries, cultural arts, and public safety." Since there are seven items on the Nov. 7 bond ballot, the advocates have chosen the name "Seven Steps For A Better Austin." The kick-off party is set for next Wednesday, Sept. 13, from 5:30 to 7:30pm at Nuevo Leon, 1501 East 6th Street . . . City starts Green Neighbor program . . . 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As part of UT’s Texas Fans Make Us Proud campaign, the airport has placed welcome banners inside the terminal. Additionally, Continental, Delta, Frontier, and Southwest are adding flights and upsizing aircraft to accommodate those arriving from Ohio. If you are planning to travel, allow some extra time for the crowds.

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