Perry's crazy budget cuts, Rivard's desal dreams


Seeking to meet Texas Governor Rick Perry’s request to cut expenses by 5 percent for the coming two-year budget, Commissioners for the Department of Health and Human Services have selected a slew of preferred reductions, such as closing 200 mental-health beds at four state hospitals, including 50 beds at the San Antonio State Hospital. If the Bexar County Jail had any hope of creating additional space for those inmates suffering psychiatric emergencies or suicidal impulses, it withers and dies under this proposal.

As it stands today, state mental hospitals are already turning away patients referred to them, said Mike Alkek, a clinical administrator at Bexar County’s Center for Health Care Services. “They tell me, ‘Mike, we don’t have any beds. Forget it,’ knowing I can put them in jail,” Alkek said recently. “They’ll sit `in jail` for two or three months before the hospital has a bed for them.”

DHHS spokesperson Carrie Williams said the hospital-bed cut was one of the least desired options on the table. “It wasn’t an easy call to make,” she said. “`It` was the the last item on our list.”

It may have been the last item listed, but the hatchet job also represents nearly 30 percent of the proposed $100 million in budget reductions. Hard to imagine how the agency would have managed its 5 percent without kicking poor, mentally unstable residents into the street … and on into local soup kitchens, county jails, and morgues. Of the 24 proposed cuts, the reduction of space at state hospitals is expected to save $27 million. The next highest cut would freeze an immunization program fueled by federal stimulus dollars, with a projected savings of $12 million. DHHS is also proposing to save $7.3 million with indigent health-care cuts and by eliminating $7 million for planned new and expanded health clinics (this one also stimulus-backed). If that sounds like a lot of free federal money to be turning away, it is.

According to the analysis by the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a casualty of the $100 million in savings is the loss of “$176 million in federal dollars for our health-care providers and local communities. Overall, the HHS reduction proposals would lead to a loss of $304 million in federal funds in the 2010-11 state budget.”

Governor Perry, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, and Speaker of the House Joe Straus are expected to announce in three weeks which options they will accept. Meanwhile, critics at the CPPP point out that Texas doesn’t need to take such drastic measures.

“It’s not that they don’t have the money, it’s that they don’t want to raise taxes a year from now,” said Eva DeLuna Castro, one of the CPPP paper’s authors. “Well, maybe you shouldn’t have passed a big tax cut `in 2009` without finding a way to pay for it.”

After a record-breaking number of suicides at the Bexar County Jail last year, the administration is desperate to find more room for mental-health and suicide-watch beds — particularly after an inspection by one of the nation’s experts in suicide prevention last month found that as overcrowding at the jail subsided this year, the mental-health units remained jam-packed. `See “Hang time,” January 20, and the QueQue, March 3.` Under the health department’s proposal, Castro said Tuesday, mentally disturbed “people `will` wander around until they hurt themselves or somebody else and then they end up in county jail.”

Meanwhile, other proposed cost-reduction measures include leaving 285 children with special health-care needs on the state waiting list through 2012 ($3.5 million saved); cutting regional health-care services around the state, including immunizations and tuberculosis-control programs ($1.8 mil); and hiring delays in environmental-health, radiation control, and food and drug regulation ($1.8 mil).

Cat suit

On September 6, 2007, Animal Care Services seized 37 cats, by the City’s count, at D’Ann Trethan’s Northside home. Trethan claims the City nabbed 50 felines and promptly put them down, and now she’s suing the City for violating her due-process rights, for physical pain and mental anguish (“I didn’t have a broken arm or anything but, you know, it’s all inside,” she said), and for the value of the cats. But what she really wants is for the City to support animal lovers who turn their homes into sanctuaries. Even though the lawsuit doesn’t mention a specific figure, she has a pretty good idea of how much it would take: “I ask for $10 million to be used for a grassroots program to benefit the citizens that are helping the animals. The more help people get, the more help the animals get.”

At the crux of Trethan’s suit is a question the City has been unable or unwilling to answer: When did it destroy her cats? The day of the seizure, the City gave Trethan a notice to appear in court for a September 19, 2007, hearing “to determine whether the domestic felines … should be returned to their owner or, if neglect or abuse is determined, the final disposition of said cats.” On September 19, Municipal Court 5 Judge Tino Guerra ruled that the animals should be “given to a non-profit animal shelter, pound, or society for the protection of animals, but if no such placement can be made within a reasonable period of time and public health and safety would be served by doing so, the animal(s) may be humanely destroyed.” But according to Trethan, “the `woman` representing the city” told her the cats were already dead. “`She` told me that, if I signed the `Notice of Administrative Hearing`, they would reduce my fine `from $1,729` to $200,” Trethan said, adding that she was so shocked by the news of the cats’ euthanization that she signed the paper under the “agreed by” line. “I signed this under duress,” she wrote in the margin of the official hearing notice she provided the QueQue. “My cats and I had no hearing.”

Last Thursday, City Attorney Judith Sánchez told us, “I can’t speak about a case in litigation, but I can tell you this: The animals were in deplorable condition.” Yet, the City’s response to Trethan’s suit, signed by Sánchez and filed in January, admits that the City “has not informally consulted any experts at this time” and is still “in the process of researching its records for details regarding the euthanizations.”

Trethan says that the day the City took her cats, Dr. Melissa Draper with ACS told her the animals would be euthanized, but Draper could not be reached for comment. ACS PIO Lisa Norwood couldn’t come up with an execution date, either, but says they are looking: “As the time period in question was a transition period between our former computer data system and our present one, the department will attempt to locate the written euthanasia logs from three years ago and effort `sic` identification of the specific animals you are referring to.”

In its response to Trethan’s suit, the City also objected that the majority of Trethan’s requests are “overly broad,” “unduly burdensome,” and/or “not relevant” to the case — questions such as the number of times the City has seized cats and euthanized them, whether the City has at any time disciplined ACS employees for failure to follow City policy, what that policy is, and who makes it.

“Maybe I did something wrong, but what they did was even worse,” Trethan told the QueQue. “That’s why they have no answers. The shelters are always full, and the citizens are willing to take responsibility, but there is really no place for the citizen to turn to in order to receive any kind of help, so we end up turning our own homes into shelters because there is no other place to put them. We love the animals and we want to help them, so we just do the best we can. As I have said so many times over the years: Rescue the rescuer!”

Plugging the dam

In December 2009, the Current reported on the unhappy state of affairs at San Antonio’s Office of Municipal Integrity, the small department with the Orwellian name whose mission was downsized in 2006 by incoming City Manager Sheryl Sculley. `“The story that didn’t run,” December 2, 2009.` Henceforth, OMI — which was founded in response to a 1985 KENS-5 investigation that uncovered building-permits bribery — would handle only “fraud, waste, and abuse” of City resources as narrowly defined by a new committee under the guidance of Deputy City Manager Pat DiGiovanni. Everything else — from complaints about physical abuse at the City-run jail to sweetheart real-estate deals for family members — would be shipped back to the departments where they originated, or sometimes sent to an Assistant City Manager to handle.

Those jail-abuse hot potatoes were tossed from one unwilling hand to another until a nosy Express-News reporter forced action in 2008 (his story, alas, was also buried in a shallow grave). And those weren’t the only potential embarrassments festering in OMI limbo. The QueQue was also concerned that substantive-sounding allegations about the construction of a San Antonio River Authority dam and the new River Walk Museum Reach contained no followup reports, only a couple of memos noting that they’d been forwarded to then Deputy City Manager Jelynne LeBlanc-Burley (who is currently the Acting GM of CPS Energy). DiGiovanni told us at the time that there was no requirement that anyone report the results of their investigations to OMI.

“Once they’re referred they are closed,” DiGiovanni said. “When we refer a case we’re basically closing it out in our system.”

Our curiosity unrequited, the QueQue put in an open-records request to find out whether those damn dam complaints were ever investigated, and ... got squat. The only on-point document was an attorney’s memo, we were told, and the Texas AG agreed that the City didn’t have to hand it over. LeBlanc-Burley said she couldn’t recall the exact details, but thought they stemmed from a “disgruntled employee.” It would’ve been in her report, she told us. When we told her an OR request didn’t turn up a report, she said it had been awhile since this all went down, and maybe she never wrote one.

The Stormwater Engineer who filed the complaint was long gone, and so were his supervisors, all the way up to former Public Works Director Tom Wendorf. So, there we sat, empty-handed, until this week, when some kind of planetary alignment kicked in, and we found the engineer who lodged the original concerns about SARA Dam 15R — that’s the one that sits up there by McAllister Park, anchoring the entire Salado Creek Watershed. Samuel Carreon, a six-year veteran of the City’s Public Works department, was let go in 2007 after he pissed off one too many developers who were anxious to get their projects moving without a lot of FEMA and/or Army Corps of Engineers red tape. He has a wrongful-termination suit pending against the City, and is reluctant to say much, but he confirmed that one of his concerns about the dam is that the models used to design it didn’t take into account the real impact of upstream impervious cover from development (read: parking lots, streets, cement foundations), and in a worst-case scenario, the dam could be topped by floodwaters. Carreon says the City never investigated the substance of his complaints.

Until now, anyways. A phone call to the City Manager’s office was returned Monday with news of a brand-new report by Public Works Director Majed Al-Ghafry; it’s at OMI, we’re told. We can’t wait to read it, because we’re sure we’ll sleep soundly once we have — we just can’t understand why it’s not in our hot little hands yet: Attach document; press send. (Al-Ghafry was unable to return calls for comment before press time.)

Water wiseguys

Reading Sunday’s paper brought with it a rush of anxiety. Columnists were expounding upon and advocating a wildly expensive centralized facility hundreds of miles away to meet growing San Antonio’s future needs. Sure, the billion-dollar-plus project would produce far more than we actually need, but that’s a good thing. We could pay down the project’s costs by selling off all that excess product to cities and towns between us and the Gulf.

Sound familiar?

No, this isn’t the now-infamous South Texas Project nuke expansion resurfacing, it’s the ocean-desalination rumba coming through, with your favorite print opinion-makers at the head of the line. San Antonio’s Clean Technology Forum held another exclusive panel at the Pearl Stables last week, moderated — as always — by Express-News Editor Bob Rivard. And while the meeting itself made few ripples in the city, one little wave was fortunate to enter the paper’s echo chamber, to reverberate in print multiple times as the next Big Idea.

Colin McDonald first honed in on Weir Labatt’s enthusiastic endorsement for ocean desalination in his reporting of the event.

“A desalination plant on the Gulf of Mexico is the solution to San Antonio’s future water needs, a longtime member of the Texas Water Development Board said at a forum Tuesday.

“All of the San Antonio Water System’s initiatives to get more water and reduce its total dependence on the Edwards Aquifer have failed so far or were unfortunately rejected, said Weir Labatt, who also served on the San Antonio City Council from 1986 to 1993 and was on the Edwards Aquifer Authority board.

“‘I think SAWS ought to crank up and put a plant on the coast,’ he said, adding that he was not speaking for the state board.”

The ball was picked up over the weekend, with columnist Jan Jarboe Russell praising the “merit” of Labatt’s words, recreating for the reader a roomful of happily bobbing heads, and enthusing over the publicness of the debate (priced at $50/head). A page-turn away on Sunday, Rivard did Russell several turns better. Labatt not only “looks and sounds like a wise man,” but is, in fact, (more than anyone else Rivard knows) truly “water-wise.” More than that, Labatt is “Old Man Water” and “When he speaks, we ought to listen,” Rivard wrote.

“Selling water to downstream users would offset some of that cost. And if it’s true that water is the new oil and that all forms of ‘new water’ will carry a much higher price, doesn’t San Antonio want to be a seller instead of a buyer?

“In other words, Labatt’s idea merits serious consideration.”

The QueQue is well acquainted with the many tales of woe that befall mortals who cross swords with fairies and the like, but there are serious problems with Old Man Water’s prescription for our city, problems that the daily should tackle before piling on. Honestly, it’s as if the last two years of chaos at CPS Energy never happened.

For our collective failure to challenge the “experts,” San Antonio ended up sinking more than $370 million into the STP expansion plans before all their promises were exposed as little more than wishful thinking.

For all the trouble that decision gave us, it would seem that Question One for our opinion-makers would be what power source we will tap into to pump all that water uphill for 200 miles. Then, perhaps, we would talk about how to dispose of all that salt.

While it makes good copy, the splash of desal dreams is not new. In fact, ocean-water desalination is already included in SAWS’ 50-year-plan, smartly inhabiting back-burner real estate. And though we have no direct line to Old Man Water, a gentle sprite still whispers in our ears from time to time.

She suggests that as long as half of San Antonio’s summertime water use goes toward sprinkling lush lawns, there’s no billion-dollar crisis in sight — and no need for H2O that would be 10 times as expensive as our current supply, by Old Man Water’s own reckoning. •

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