Thursday, March 16, 2000 by

Environmental Board recommends ending deep discounts for drainage fees

Change could cost commercial customers thousands of dollars annually

If the city's Environmental Board has its way, the deep discount that some commercial property owners currently get on drainage charges may be reduced drastically. Last night the board discussed at length a proposed ordinance that would repeal and replace City Code Chapter 18-3 regarding the drainage utility. Section 18-3-16 of that ordinance would codify in the ordinance city's rules that have been handled administratively in the past. The procedure currently provides that a user of nonresidential property may request a reduced drainage charge if the property has a well-maintained, on-site detention pond that receives stormwater runoff from the property.

Drainage fees are quite hefty for large commercial properties. According to the city's separate fee ordinance, which is revised annually as part of the annual budget process, the monthly nonresidential charge is $51.12 per developed acre. That calculates to about $1,022 a month for 20 acres of developed property, or $5,112 a month for 100 acres.

An estimated 150 nonresidential properties are currently taking advantage of the 50 percent reduction in drainage fees, Vickie Schubert, chief financial officer for Infrastructure Support Services, told In Fact Daily. Schubert told the board the city collects about $21 million a year in drainage fees.

Environmental Board members questioned whether the city should be forfeiting revenue by giving the discounts. Or if a discount is given, it should be commensurate with the city's avoided costs, they said. Board Member Jessica Joyce Christi said, "Fifty percent seems very generous, like 50 percent for complying with the law. If they didn't maintain the pond they would get ticketed, but by doing what they're required to do they save 50 percent of the drainage fee."

Schubert replied, "The 50 percent is something that has been in place for a very long time, and not a very large percentage currently take advantage of it. Certainly if you'd like to make some recommendations…my advice would be to do that in the budget process. That may be a better way to handle it to give us more time to work with commercial customers who take advantage of it currently, and make sure they understand why we're doing what we're doing."

Another proposed change in the ordinance that could potentially cost customers money is shortening the period for which drainage fees can be refunded. At present, refunds may be recovered all the way back to November 1991, Schubert said. The proposal would limit refunds to a period of two years. "We feel it is reasonable for a customer to take some responsibility for utility bills," she said. Every bill has a statement based on size and type of drainage facilities located on the property, and a number to call if the customer has questions, she said. By way of analogy, Schubert explained, "The IRS will give a (tax) refund if you file a return by the third year but if you don't file a return you don't get a refund. This is parallel to that."

At the conclusion of an hour of discussion and debate, the board voted 6-0 to pass a motion to recommend approval of the proposed ordinance with several amendments. Key amendments included clarifying that to receive a discounted drainage fee there must be an annual inspection. The proposed ordinance states if the inspection shows the property is no longer eligible for the reduced charge, the full charge will be reinstated on the first billing after the user has been notified of the loss. To that the board added that the user may not reapply for the reduced charge for six months. The board recommended that the fee ordinance be amended so the reduction in drainage charges is commensurate with the city's avoided cost. Finally, the board recommended that in the future, the city consider granting a larger discount on drainage fees to users who protect water quality in a way that exceeds the minimum required by city regulations.

More work near Barton Springs Pool and two springs to protect salamander

Phase II drainage improvements to divert stormwater

The City Council will soon be considering a construction project near Barton Springs Pool designed to provide further protection to the Barton Springs Salamander, which is a federally listed endangered species. The project was developed to respond to the requirements of the city's 10(a) permit granted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Phase II construction contract for $240,320 calls for Austin Filter Systems Inc. to make improvements that will reduce the amount of stormwater runoff entering Barton Springs Pool, Eliza Springs, and Sunken Gardens ( Old Mill Springs). According to the Watershed Protection Department's latest quarterly reported dated March 9, a counting of salamanders in December found 69 in Barton Springs, two in Eliza Springs and one in Sunken Garden.

The majority of the project consists of drainage improvements in the vicinity of Robert E. Lee Road and Barton Hills Drive to redirect stormwater flows to Barton Creek below Barton Springs Pool. This includes 320 feet of 60-inch diameter storm sewer, 180 feet of 36-inch diameter storm sewer, 53 feet of 24-inch diameter storm sewer, and a berm topped with granite gravel for a walking surface between Barton Hills Drive and the south parking lot of Zilker Park. The project also includes reconstruction of the flagstone walkway and grading improvements around Eliza Springs to reduce stormwater runoff entering the springs, and grading improvements at Sunken Gardens to diminish runoff into the springs.

Last night, Gary Kosut, capital improvement project manager for the Watershed Protection Department, told the Environmental Board these improvements would not interrupt swimming at Barton Springs Pool.

After brief discussion the board voted 6-0 to recommend approval of the construction contract, as well as an accompanying budget amendment for $262,000 that will cover this construction contract and some related work as well. Some $113,000 left from Phase I work will also be used to provide the full $375,000 needed for all work and a contingency fund.

Kosut told In Fact Daily that Phase 1 improvements were made in Barton Springs Pool last spring, including removal of earth and deepening the north side of the pool and installation of large rocks in that area to provide a better habitat for the salamander. A hand rail was to be installed in that area as well, he said.

EDITORIAL

Mayor Kirk Watson essentially unopposed in bid for second term

Despite grumbling in neighborhood circles no one has challenged

With no viable opposition in sight and the March 22 filing deadline to get on the ballot looming, Mayor Kirk Watson looks not only unbeatable but virtually unchallenged. He has only two homeless opponents at present, Albert Leslie Cochran and Jennifer Lauren Gale.

Architect Jeff Jack was rumored in neighborhood circles to be readying for a race against Watson if the mayor couldn't be convinced to become more neighborhood-friendly. On election night Tuesday, Jack told In Fact Daily that lots of people have been trying to persuade him to run but that's not going to happen. As a sole practitioner, Jack said he can't spare the time. He has too many obligations to clients, not to mention having recently taken on the presidency of the Zilker Neighborhood Association to help guide neighborhood planning efforts. Besides, he says, the mayor may be more likely to alter his stance through friendly persuasion than as a result of a frontal assault.

So the clock is ticking. There are but five city working days left for a serious challenger to file against Watson. If he draws no worthy opponent it will be only the second time since mayors were first directly elected in 1971 that an incumbent mayor running for reelection had such an easy time of it. Carole Keeton McClellan (now Rylander) in 1979 won reelection against a single challenger, Thomas J. Baker, earning a second term with a landslide 79 percent of the vote.

Through the respect Watson has garnered for his overall achievements and an understanding of his genuine political clout, the current mayor–who stepped into office with less than a majority vote because he opponent, Ronney Reynolds withdrew from the runoff–looks like a shoo-in. The lack of sacrificial lambs is understandable, for it's not as if anyone could reasonably hope to beat Watson. But it would be healthy for democracy if someone credible ran against Watson to force a serious discussion of such major issues as smart growth, light rail, major highway projects, protection of neighborhoods and social equity, to name just a few. A credible candidate would also generate some interest in this election and help boost turnout–something that's desperately needed considering the miserable 8.36 percent turnout for the 1999 council elections.

We hope that the ease of Watson's pending de facto coronation will not deter him from continuing to run a campaign, relaxed though it may be. We hope the mayor participates fully in candidate forums, where he will have an opportunity to hear from the electorate and participate in the serious give and take of political debate that happens only during elections.

Refuge review…Tonight at 7 p.m. Dr. Chuck Sexton of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, staff biologist for the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, will speak to the Travis Audubon Society about what's happening at the refuge. The event's to be held in the auditorium (Building 82) at Camp Mabry, west of MoPac Expressway off 35th Street. Look for the statue of a WW II era soldier near the entrance… Hap-py birth-day dear mayor… Mayor Kirk Watson is busy raising money in case a real challenger appears. Hizzoner turns 42 on Saturday, March 18, and he's using the occasion for a belated birthday party and fund-raiser. The gig will be 5:30-7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 22, at the Broken Spoke, 3201 S. Lamar Blvd. Hear Jerry Jeff Walker for a mere $10, says Watson's fund-raiser, Barbara Rush. For more info call Rush at 478-5475… Not for general public…Although it's by invitation only, of note is the fact that the Austin arts community will be holding a private fund-raiser for Mayor Kirk Watson next Tuesday, March 21, at the home of Marla Bommarito-Crouch… Hispanic Chamber banquet…The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce holds its 27th annual installation and awards banquet Saturday, March 18, at the Hyatt Regency, 208 Barton Springs Road. State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos will emcee. Featured guests include Mayor Kirk Watson and Council Member Gus Garcia. The reception starts at 6:30 p.m. and the program begins at 8 p.m. For more info, call Dan Ruiz at 476-7502 or see the chamber's web page at www.hispanicaustin.com… Babich on ballot…The Place 5 City Council contest got its first official entrant yesterday, as bicycle activist Amy Juliet Babich filed for a place on the ballot. Also expected to seek the seat being vacated by Bill Spelman are Mary Clare Barry, Paul "Chip" Howe and William P. "Will" Wynn.

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