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Why reimburse developer and not school? Cooper asks

Friday, June 7, 2002 by

Members of the Water & Wastewater Commission this week voted to recommend that the city reimburse the developer of a new subdivision for the costs and inspection fees for building a new 24-inch water main and 24-inch wastewater line. Developers of the Colton Bluff Subdivision volunteered to bring their property at Colton Bluff Springs Road and McKinney Falls Parkway into the city limits and comply with the city’s Smart Housing guidelines, assuring the city that 40 percent of the units developed will be set aside for families at 80 percent or less of the median family income. Plans call for 517 single-family homes and 125 apartment units.

In talks with the developer, representatives of the Water and Wastewater Utility reached a proposed agreement for the water and wastewater lines to have capacity beyond that required for the new housing. That could lower the city’s cost to supply service to other development in the surrounding area. Under the proposed agreement, the city would reimburse “hard” construction costs for the wastewater line of up to $625,000 and up to $687,500 for the water line. The city would also reimburse the developer for certain “soft” construction costs, such as engineering, design, and project management. Other soft costs will be borne by the developer, including financing, accounting, and legal services.

That arrangement sparked questions from Commissioner Lanetta Cooper, who was concerned about the extra reimbursements being offered to some developments but not to others, such as a new Junior High in the Del Valle ISD. “When we look at the Del Valle request, we’re not giving Del Valle that same kind of benefit,” said Cooper. “From a public policy point of view, how can you distinguish why we would reimburse soft costs for this project but not for the Del Valle project?”

Utility staff told Cooper that several factors were taken into account, including the size of the water line and whether the city was already planning to work on the line as part of its Capital Improvement Program. Staff members also pointed out that although not specifically itemized in the SMART Housing guidelines, lowering the soft costs for the developer would enable the company to pass those savings along to the eventual tenants or owners of the homes. Estimated soft costs the city would reimburse for the water line total $137,000, while the amount for the wastewater line is $156,250.

“There hasn’t been a scientific cost-benefit analysis for this type of waiver,” Cooper objected. “It causes me concern that we’re going to waive these soft engineering costs for a developer who’s in it to make a profit . . . but we’re not going to waive soft costs for the Del Valle Junior High School, which we know is in a low-income area and doesn’t get a significant amount of tax revenues. We’re really being asked to make a public-policy decision from this one case.”

Smart Housing Officer Stuart Hersh defended the proposed reimbursements as consistent with the city’s existing policies. “What we’re talking about here is a developer who could have had the opportunity to build a subdivision outside the city limits with no revenues to the city tax base . . . choosing voluntarily to be subject to the city’s regulations,” Hersh said. “Do we want a public policy that will encourage those people who want to build the kind of housing that the City Council has determined is desirable for the community . . . or do we want that development to continue outside the city limits?”

The commission voted 7-0-1 in favor of the reimbursement proposal, with Cooper abstaining. Commissioner Kim McPherson was not present. The commission voted unanimously in favor of reimbursing the hard construction costs for water and wastewater lines to the new Del Valle Junior High.

Citizen brings global warming concern to board

Coinciding with a recent Bush Administration report acknowledging the need to take measures to combat global warming, the Environmental Board passed a motion on Wednesday requesting that the City Council take action to reduce greenhouse gasses.

The motion makes reference to a five-year old, 77-page report compiled by the city outlining a clear-cut process to substantially cut carbon dioxide emissions by 2010.

Chair Lee Leffingwell made the motion, requesting that the City Council “direct the City Manager to use the City of Austin Carbon Dioxide Reduction Strategy Report to help develop a plan to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions from landfills, waste treatment plants and off-road sources (construction equipment, lawn/garden equipment, etc.).”

The motion asks the City Manager to report back to the Council with “cost estimates, where applicable, implementation strategies, and projected emissions reductions. The Board further requests that the report include an analysis of reduction strategies that could provide the collateral benefit of reducing other pollutants, including but not limited to those leading to ozone formation.”

Scott Johnson, who told the Board he was not city staff, but “a citizen advocate on global warming,” made a presentation to the Board using the city report released in February 1997 by the former Planning, Environmental and Conservation Services Department (now Transportation Planning & Sustainability Department).

The report states that Austin became an “Energy Smart City” and member of the Cities for Climate Protection Campaign, by resolution of the City Council in August of 1995.

“The timing is very coincidental that the Bush Administration is acknowledging this project,” Johnson said. He mentioned five areas outlined in the report that provide a framework for reducing greenhouse gasses: energy efficiency, renewable resources, transportation, recycling and tree planting.

Leffingwell noted that the city of Seattle had adopted the Kyoto Protocol as a tool to control the city’s greenhouse gasses, and he asked Johnson if he thought Austin could also adopt the measures of the pact. Johnson said no because too much of Austin’s electrical generation depends on methods that emit high levels of carbon dioxide. Seattle, on the other hand, relies more on cleaner, hydroelectric generation, he said.

The Kyoto Protocol on climate change was ratified by the European Union last week, and United Nations diplomats have expressed confidence that Japan and Russia will soon follow suit, paving the way for the pact to become law by the end of the year. Though the United States is the world’s largest source of greenhouse gasses, the Bush Administration opposes the treaty.

Leffingwell said he made the motion in lieu of Board Member Ramon Alvarez, who is the chair of the Board’s air quality subcommittee, but could not attend the meeting. Board Member Connie Seibert made the second.

The vote was unanimous, with Board Members Alvarez and Matt Watson absent. An important issue not addressed in the motion is how the city might fund such an initiative during the current budget crisis. That will surely be on the minds of Council members as they look at proposals from a variety of boards and commissions.

Austin Neighborhoods Together PAC . . . The group will meet from 5:30 – 7:30 p.m. Friday at Threadgill’s World Headquarters, Riverside Dr. at Barton Springs Rd. Political consultants David Butts and Mike Blizzard and The Good Life Magazine’ s editor Ken Martin will review results of the May city elections. Martin is also the former editor of In Fact Daily and a frequent guest on the KLRU program Austin at Issue. For more information, contact Will Bozeman, bozeman@bga.com or call 422-7395 . . . Stratus report . . . The ZAP Stratus Task Force did not meet as planned on Thursday night. Members learned that their previously scheduled meeting to discuss transportation issues had not been properly posted, so the meeting was scuttled. No word yet on when it will be rescheduled. In other Stratus news, Paul Saldaña, executive assistant to Mayor Gus Garcia said yesterday that the Mayor no longer wishes to postpone the City Council hearing scheduled for June 27th. Earlier, Saldaña said the Mayor would not be returning from Europe in time to get ready for a hearing on that date. However, Garcia will come back on the 25th and attend the June 26th work session, he said. According to Saldaña, staff will be “giving the Mayor updates over phone” on the issue. In addition, the aide said, “The Mayor has some concerns about what’s going on with the (endangered Barton Springs) salamander—what’s causing the high level of oxygen in the water.” (See http://www.infactdaily.com/archives/april_17_2002.html). The city has sent some specimens of deceased salamanders to the National Wildlife Health Center and to Texas A&M University for pathological studies. While awaiting results—which may give a clue as to whether the salamander deaths are linked to construction over the aquifer—the city is continuing negotiations with Stratus, Saldaña said . . . Recycling organization seeks help . . . Those interested in the future of the recycling non-profit organization Ecology Action are invited to attend a Community Meeting and Luncheon on Saturday from 10am to 1pm at Trinity United Methodist Church, 600 E. 50th. The staff and board are seeking input on the future of Ecology Action, as well as the future of recycling, waste reduction, reuse options and other environmental issues in Austin and Central Texas. Last year the organization collected and recycled more than four million pounds of material. To RSVP, call 322-0000.

© 2002 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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