Council Watch

Insubordination of the Unelected

The city government just can't catch a break, not even from its own state legislators. The first beating last week came from Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos (see Daryl Slusher's column this week). The second: a scathing attack from

Rep. Glen Maxey at last Thursday's

council meeting. Maxey, speaking after the council exited an execu-tive session in which the Seton Medical Center/Brackenridge Hospital merger was discussed, charged that the city's bureaucratic ranks had run afoul of the council's oft-repeated commitment to indigent care at Brackenridge.

Maxey, who leads the city's delegation in matters of Austin's public health care, said that city staff has attempted to prevent the addition of a clause in HB 2837 - a bill filed by Maxey to allow the merger with no interference from state law - to ensure that Brack continues to provide indigent care at its current level.

An angry Maxey informed the councilmembers that, "At every turn... city staff has balked, demurred, refrained, adjured, spurned, dismissed, disproved, and refused to agree to plain language that would simply state your guarantee that the needy citizens of Travis County will have access to health and medical care."

According to Maxey, an amendment suggested by city staff "could mean an eventual reduction in the level of charity care offered in Austin." That amendment to the bill, which is now waiting for a spot on the House calendar, states that the hospital shall "use best efforts" to provide indigent care. Maxey recounted a threat from city staffers that they would call off the merger if his amendment to guarantee current indigent health care levels were added. Maxey's spokesperson, Hugh Strange, added in an interview Thursday that city staff referred to the language as "a deal killer."

After Maxey iced off Thursday's harangue with a promise that, "regardless of the bureaucrats, indigent care in Austin will be preserved," Councilmember Brigid Shea asked City Manager Jesus Garza why city staffers would threaten to sabotage the negotiations if the amendment were added. Garza did not answer but instead declared - slapping the dais to emphasize his points - that indigent care had already been contractually assured by Seton and that the city didn't need the legislature nosing into its business (a defense he failed to make in response to the plethora of Austin-bashing legislation). Ed Clark, public information officer for Austin, later claimed Maxey's amendment is unconstitutional because it would obligate future city councils to fund indigent care.

City Attorney Andrew Martin, perhaps fearing that the world was bearing witness to a tête-á-tête that threatened to divulge top secret information about the management transfer, seized the opportunity to shutter the embar-rassing exchange from public view and requested that the discussion return Wednesday as a posted item, so as not to violate the city's Open Meetings Act.

In a related issue, Travis County

Judge Bill Aleshire confided in an interview Friday that the city has made no advances toward the county to resolve the city's burden of funding countywide indigent care at Brack. In the last four years alone, indigents outside Austin proper have sent a $20.6 million bill to city taxpayers. Aleshire approves of making all county taxpayers responsible for the cost, since he says out-of-Austin residents are getting a "free ride." Any such tax redistribution, however, requires an agreement between the city council and the commissioner's court. Aleshire says that in the past, he has continuously tried to initiate an agreement, but that the ball is now in the city's court.

Toby Futtrell, assistant to the city manager, said in the first week of March that the city staff was preparing an "internal fiscal model" to determine how to incrementally redistribute the tax burden. At the time, Futtrell said that the model would be ready in "one to two weeks." To date, however, it is impossible to ascertain whether such a model exists and hence, whether city taxpayers will again foot the entire bill for indigent care at Brack. Councilmembers Jackie Goodman and Gus Garcia are supposed to oversee the planned redistribution,

yet both say they aren't sure where

the matter stands. Goodman thinks city staff may be working on a model, but last Thursday Garza said only, "I think we did work on some numbers." He added that he is not sure if the analysis is complete. Futtrell won't say. "I have nothing new to report on it," is her oft-repeated response.

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The council is poised to approve the recommendations of the work-ing group charged with making the

Balcones Canyonlands Conservation

Plan (BCCP) a reality. Goodman and Shea have taken a now-or-never stance on the plan, while the developer faction of the council is also expected to bite.

The BCCP would allow developers to pay a fee (between $1,500 and $5,500 an acre) that would go for the purchase of 9,501 acres of privately owned land in western Travis County to complete a preserve system protecting habitat for several endangered species. In

exchange, developers could build on what would otherwise be protected

habitat, under a blanket 10(A) per-mit granted to the BCCP from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The cost of acquiring the land over 20-40 years is estimated at $54 million, according to the city's plan, a number derived from recent sales of comparable land. However, a group of citizens who own land in the proposed wilderness park say that is drastically underpriced. They say a more realistic approach to determining the cost would be to actually ask the landowners what they would sell for. For substantiation, they point to a pro bono study by TK Consulting Engineers that did just that. The company, owned by Tom Kam, a landowner in the area of the proposed preserves, found that "about" 90% of the average landowners would sell for an average of $28,660 per acre. This announcement brought guffaws from the BCCP Working Group when Kam provided his numbers to the 12 members about a month ago, and charges that such prices are "grossly inflated." At the time,

County Commissioner Valarie Bristol said the BCCP group would probably

rely on "more accurate" figures represented by tax appraisals.

At the same time, nearly everyone

agrees that the fees charged under the BCCP are inadequate to purchase the needed preserve land, though no one is rushing in to take up the slack. Even under the best-case scenario, promulgated most vocally by assistant city manager Joe Lessard, the plan will have about a $10 million shortfall. Moreover, according to the TK study, at least half of the landowners in the region aren't interested in selling. And several landowners who told Kam they would sell at least part of their property claim that they've never been approached by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. At least two, Elizabeth Wendland and Joe Neal, say they've never been notified that there is endangered species habitat on their land, much less that their property is being eyed for the preserves.

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Next week in council: Only one council meeting remains for a vote on the Goodman/Garcia Barton Creek PUD agreement before the FM Properties v. City of Austin lawsuit goes to trial May 8. The agreement, if approved by the council, could preclude the need for a trial, but sources report that Freeport has shown no interest in the plan, and to date, the item is not posted for Thursday's agenda.

A 5pm public hearing and vote on the BCCP, plus a 5:30pm public hearing on the site of a new city hall, are scheduled for this week. n

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