Page 16


Meanwhile, the 200-foot rule will look piddling if a libertarian legal institution gets its way. On Nov. 19, the Texas Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Severance v. General Land Office.The plaintiff is Carol Severance, a Californian who owns four homes and two lots on Galveston Island, according to property records. In 2006, the Land Office asked her to move three of her homes off the public beach and sweetened the pot with $120,000. Severance refused and enlisted the Californiabased Pacific Legal Institute to sue the state. The suit argues that because the public beach easement is encroaching onto private property, it constitutes an unconstitutional seizure and taking. If Severance prevails, Texas’ public beaches may be a thing of the past. Forrest Wilder Hiring Freeze LOW PAY MAY SCUTTLE REFORMS AT STATE SCHOOLS If you’re looking for a job in this down economy, you might try the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services. The state agencyknown commonly as DADSneeds to hire a lot of people to care for mentally disabled Texans, and it’s struggling to fill the jobs. Without more employees, the department could have trouble reducing abuse and improving care. DADS operates 13 large institutions for Texans with mental retardation. The facilities once were called state schools, though the Legislature recently changed the name to the even fuzzier “State Supported Living Centers.” Whatever you call them, the facilities house some of the most vulnerable Texansthose with low IQs and some who can’t care for themselves. State schools can be violent places. Scandalous reports of abuse and mistreatment in the facilities have been circulating for three years, including horrific stories of unexplained deaths, beatings and neglect. One cause of the mistreatmentthough not the only oneis short staffing. So the past two sessions, the Legislature has provided funding for DADS to hire a combined 2,85o additional workers. The first round of hiring began in 2007, when DADS was slated to add 1,690 workers. Two years later, it still hasn’t filled all those positions. The agency is about 300 workers short of the 2007 target, says Cecilia Fedorov, a DADS spokesperson. She says the agency has had trouble hiring nurses and other medical professionals. The second roundapproved in the 2009 sessionrequires DADS to add another 1,160 state school employees. That’s part of a legal settlement with the U.S. Justice Department, which investigated Texas’ state school system and has threatened litigation if conditions aren’t improved. Viewed in a wider context, the state schools are still dangerously short-staffed. The facilities have high turnover rates \(half of all direct care workers, the people who care for the patients retirements and firings for abuse, the system has been losing workers nearly as fast as it’s been adding them. The state schools have hired 1,400 workers since 2007, but because so many have left, the net increase in staff has been only 600, according to DADS figures. For instance, since 2007 the staff at the Corpus Christi schoolwhere workers forced patients to make an infamous “fight club” video last yearhas grown by only nine workers. That’s an increase of i percent. The state school system employs roughly 11,900 people now If and when hiring is completed, the total should be about 14,000. There’s a long way to go. Caring for the severely mentally disabled is a demanding job that’s not for everyone. Some people aren’t cut out for it, which is one reason turnover is so high. Critics of state schools point to another problem: low pay. State school workers are among the lowest-paid state employees. The starting salary for a base-level direct worker is about $19,000. That salary sometimes attracts low-quality employees who were recently delivering pizzas. DADS requested a 10-percent pay raise for state school workers this past legislative session, but lawmakers refused. That decision could seriously hamper reform efforts. If DADS continues to have problems attracting and retaining staffers at state schools, it’s unlikely the conditions at these facilities will improve. Dave Mann Seeing the Light COLONIAS FINALLY GET ELECTRICITY AND WATER SERVICE Hundreds of people in border colonias are finally receiving electricity, running water and sewer service after decades without these basic utilities. The relief comes after the Texas Legislature lifted a little-known prohibition on utilities for certain residents of coloniasmakeshift communities with some of the highest poverty rates in the nation. Some 400,000 people live in Texas colonias, mostly along the border from El Paso to Brownsville, though only a small fraction of them suffered under the prohibition. In the 199os, the Legislature pushed through reforms aimed at stopping the proliferation of colonias. The effort succeeded in slowing their growth and provided funding that brought sewer service and water to many communities. But in their zealousness to halt new colonias, lawmakers also made life unnecessarily hard for some residents. One facet of the lawmodified in the 2009 legislative sessioneffectively barred people from connecting to the electric grid or being eligible for water and sewer service. The law mandated that communities couldn’t receive these services unless their property was platteda process that legally defines a property’s boundaries. However, unscrupulous colonia developers often did little more than draw subdivisions on a piece of paper, setting the stage for an expensive and time-consuming replatting process. Many landowners never replatted, which deprived them of basic services. The law led to absurdities. In Webb County, certain lots 6 THE TEXAS OBSERVER SEPTEMBER 4, 2009