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Council votes to cut Seton’s fee waiver request by more than half

Friday, June 13, 2014 by Jenny Blair

Those opposed to offering the future Seton Medical Center at The University of Texas a bundle of fee and requirement waivers can take heart after the Austin City Council cut the total value of the waivers from over $2.4 million to $902,000.


The Council voted unanimously in favor of an ordinance waiving some fees that would have brought the city extra money, like charges for closing a lane of traffic. But Council Member Bill Spelman asked that the council remove hard costs from the list, like physical inspections that require a city employee to visit the site.


“We should not be waiving things which, if waived, would have to be picked up by the taxpayers and ratepayers,” Spelman said.


The new teaching hospital, located at 15th and Red River streets, will adjoin the future Dell Medical School and replace the current hospital, University Medical Center Brackenridge, which is on the same site.


As originally proposed, Seton’s fee waivers would have included $150,000 in building and parking-garage permit plan review and inspection fees; $30,000 in tower crane permit fees; $12,000 in fire inspection fees, $2,000 in heliport permit fees, $7,265 in water-meter installation fees, $1,000 in encroachment agreement application fees, and $870,000 in lane-closure fees.


However, the big-ticket item was for water and wastewater impact fees, which amounted to $1.4 million. That would have meant a substantial revenue loss for Austin Water Utility, and ratepayers would have had to pick up the tab. Water rate increases have met with dismay from voters, but the utility faces a budget shortfall due to a combination of drought and successful water-conservation efforts.


The original ordinance also waived two requirements relating to street signals: one a $75,000 traffic signal improvement at 15th Street and Old Red River Street, the other a $10,000 crosswalk signal at 15th and New Red River Street.


By the time the ordinance passed, the only remaining waivers were the lane-closure fees, the crane tower permit fees, and the heliport permit fees. Everything else remains the hospital’s responsibility.


Ora Houston, who is running for City Council, urged Council members to vote no.

“How often can one go to the well before the well runs dry?” Houston asked. “I think many of the people who voted in this last election to support this medical school didn’t realize that Travis County taxpayers were the only ones to pay the burden to get this built. And so yet we’re coming back again to ask for waivers….We’ve done our fair share.”


Laura Pressley, another candidate for Council, asked Council members to disclose the parties requesting the fee waivers, saying that supporting documents didn’t include that information. 


Consumer advocate Paul Robbins seconded her concerns, and added objections to the proposed water and wastewater impact fee waivers. “I can’t see that this is fiscally responsible after the health district raised its taxes by 70 percent, and it has, from about 7 cents per $100 to 12 cents per $100,” Robbins said. “We really have to figure out a way to keep Austin’s water rates as low as possible.”


The city postponed the item in May due to concerns about whether Seton would offer the full complement of women’s reproductive services. As a Catholic hospital, Seton can’t allow certain procedures like abortion and elective sterilization, yet as a teaching and community hospital it will arguably be obligated to do so. (See Austin Monitor, May 27)


On that note, Council Member Laura Morrison told the council that Central Health has a subcommittee looking at the issue. Morrison said she and Council Member Kathie Tovo are considering a resolution that would ask the Women’s Commission to get involved in the discussion.


Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole also reported that the hospital had since agreed to adhere to an $11 per hour wage floor and to workers’ compensation rules.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell expressed his support for Seton’s efforts to raise money from private sources, and disappointment that the council was apparently singling out Seton for special treatment. He reminded the council that it had recently approved similar waivers for the medical school complex.


But Spelman said wouldn’t have voted to waive those fees had he known their downstream effects on taxpayers and ratepayers.


“I can’t speak for my colleagues, but I myself did not fully understand the value of our impact fees,” Spelman said.


Cole made a substitute motion to put water and wastewater impact fees back into the waiver package, bringing the total waivers to about $2.3 million, but it failed to gain a majority vote.

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