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Barton aquifer district raises rates

Tuesday, August 19, 2003 by

New rates, cutbacks mean BSEACD no longer faces deficit

Permittees of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District seeking amendments to their permits will begin paying higher fees beginning September 1, 2003. At its regular monthly meeting last week, district board members also adopted a new budget for fiscal year 2004 that should place the district on firm financial footing. “We’re in the black again,” interim district general manager Veva McCaig said Monday.

Since May, the district has been facing a projected $200,000 deficit.

McCaig said the district was able to make significant savings in the new budget as a result of two layoffs, including that of former general manager Floyd Marsh, the resignation of a third staff member, across the board cuts in district programs and a steep reduction in the district’s contribution to the employee health plan.

“The staff is really all pulling together and probably doing more work than they were in May,” McCaig said. “People are kind of doubling up in different areas.” The district will begin the new budget year on September 1 with 11 staff members, down from 14.

Also starting Sept. 1, permittees who request minor amendments to their pumping permits (increases of ten percent or less) will have to pay the district a fee of $400. That’s up from the $50 fee that has been in effect since 1989. Applications for major permit amendments (for pumping increases of 10 percent or more) will cost $500, up from $250.

McCaig said state law allows groundwater districts to recover reasonable costs for the administration and processing of permit applications. An evaluation of the time and staff costs that go into the processing of applications, she said, showed that the fee increases were justified and reasonable.

“They are definitely reasonable and definitely less than what we are spending on the staff time to go out and look at a site, meet with the permittee, go over all the information—in addition to the public hearings if it’s a major amendment,” McCaig explained.

The district currently has about 98 permittees in southern Travis County and northern Hays County that are drawing an estimated 2.2 billion gallons of groundwater annually from the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer. As many as eight permit amendments to draw more water from the aquifer are now pending before the district. They will not be affected by the new fee schedule, McCaig said.

In other action Thursday:

The board declared a stage one drought alert and is asking permittees to voluntarily reduce their water consumption by10 percent. “If we continue going in this direction, hot and dry, we’re looking at possibly more critical stages of drought in the future,” McCaig said.

A new Conservation Credit Policy was adopted, effective September 1 for the 2004 fiscal year, in which permittees must implement conservation programs if they want to receive credit for using less water than their permitted amounts.

Explaining the new policy, McCaig said, “it used to be a simple equation . . . if they under-pumped they were given that (amount) times 17 cents per thousand gallons (credit). It will now be tied more to conservation. To get their credits, permittees must implement conservation measures and document implementation of those measures . . . it’s going to be a function of what the permittees decide to do. If they decide not to they will not get their credits.”

The board reviewed a new district sustainable yield model that McCaig says will be a regular item of discussion in upcoming board meetings. An update of the model approved by the Texas Water Development Board two years ago, McCaig said, the new version will help place the district in a better policy-making position in the future that would include possibly pumping limits during drought and interruptible groundwater supply permits.

“It doesn’t really tell you how much water (is in the aquifer), like a cup. It talks about how much in the aquifer is tied to how much is coming in through recharge.”

Capital Metro facing $7.1 million problem

Lower sales tax collections could lead to fare increase, service cutbacks

Capital Metro’s board of directors will be looking at a $7.1 million gap between revenues and expenditures when the full budget is presented to the board next Monday.

A brief overview of the budget was presented at a work session Monday afternoon. Sales tax collections dominate Capital Metro’s revenues so any hit the city has taken has been felt doubly at the regional transit agency. The shortfall may force Capital Metro to dip into reserves, cut services or raise fares.

Chief Financial Officer Cynthia Hernandez presented the budget overview to the board. In her presentation, Hernandez said that although revenues are outpacing expenses this year, balancing the budget would require using 81.8 percent of the available sales tax revenue. Capital Metro’s rule of thumb has always been to use no more than 75 percent of sales taxes.

The revenue estimates are based on an assumption of 2 percent growth in sales tax over the current fiscal year, the same assumptions the city is using. President Fred Gilliam said he was hopeful that June sales taxes—which showed flat, rather than declining numbers—were a sign that the Austin economy was about to turn the corner.

That 2 percent projected increase still put sales tax revenues at $10.6 million less than what Capital Metro estimated in the original fiscal year 2003 budget. The transit agency also expects to pick up some additional revenue from grants and investment income. Capital Metro has already hired a consultant to find innovative revenue and financial options for the transit agency, such as new partnerships with local jurisdictions.

On the expense side, Capital Metro will see a 15-percent increase in health care costs this year and a 4-percent budgeted increase in salaries under the most recent bargaining contract. The total $113.7 million budget is an increase of $5.4 million over last year, with $5.5 million in additional cost related to salary increases and health benefits.

Hernandez laid out some tough choices to close the $7.1 million gap. Those options include a review of the fare policy, an increase in outsourcing or possibly a reduction in service levels. The agency could also change the subsidy Capital Metro provides to shuttle services for the University of Texas and the Austin Independent School District. Increased use of part-time personnel could avoid the cost of overtime and benefits.

Board member Fred Harless said one area he would like to take a hard look at would be the special transit services provided by Capital Metro. The agency provides limited service to Pflugerville, Cedar Park and West Lake Hills, which are outside the agency’s service area, as well as additional service along underutilized routes.

Harless said discussions with other transit agencies had convinced him that Capital Metro does more than it should and pays more than it should for special transit services. He asked whether the agency had been billing other communities for service. Capital Metro can bill other communities for up to 50 percent of the actual cost of service.

Hernandez said yes, the agency had been billing other communities, but only recently. Hernandez said the agency had suffered a “miscommunication” with other communities over the last few billing cycles and only recently corrected the problem. Those anticipated revenues are included in the current budget projections.

Harless, the chair of the financial committee, also questioned some of the capital expenditures proposed for the new budget, such as budget software at a cost of $320,000. The agency projects a full capital budget of $36 million this year. Harless said he would like to review the expenditures carefully in what was definitely a difficult financial year.

A finance committee meeting will be scheduled for Friday to review the budget. The budget will be presented to the full board next Monday, with a public hearing scheduled on Sept. 17 and board approval of the budget on Sept. 22.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Farewell for Lauri . . . Chronicle reporter Lauri Apple will be saying good-bye to friends at Scholz Garden beginning at 7pm Thursday. Apple is moving to Amarillo to work with attorney Jeff Blackburn, who was instrumental in winning the release of numerous Tulia residents unjustly accused of drug dealing . . . Dog days at City Hall . . . The visitors’ parking spots had few takers and Council parking spaces were only half-filled too Monday. This week’s meeting list is short, with no Council and no Zoning and Platting Commission gatherings scheduled . . . Capital Metro issues . . . Cap Metro would make a $106,900 profit off the Texas Department of Transportation’s plan to condemn a half acre of land for use as right-of-way in the expansion of US 183. The parcel, located on Ed Bluestein Boulevard, would be carved out of land surrounding Cap Metro’s Northeast Operating facility. The total price of the land, almost $385,000, will also cover the creation of a new detention pond on the site . . . The Cap Metro board intends to execute a $5.3 million agreement with the University of Texas to continue running the UT Shuttle service for another year. The total will include almost $100,000 for in-kind services from the university, including training and classroom space. Cap Metro and UT continue to negotiate a long-term contract with one another . . . Cap Metro intends to make use of new funding under the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan. A $70,000 grant from the plan will pick up the additional cost of ultra-low sulfur diesel and reduce fleet emissions by 12 percent overall. Cap Metro continues to retrofit its fleet to make use of the low-emissions fuel . . . Cap Metro Board Member John Treviño reported on Cap Metro’s recent exchange trip to sister city Saltillo, Mexico. Treviño said Saltillo uses concessionaires for its bus routes, which are run by the city. Treviño said it was his hope that Cap Metro could sell off older excess equipment to Austin’s sister city . . . Cap Metro will pay $123,600 to renew a 3-year agreement with the owner of Barton Creek Mall. The transit agency uses a portion of the mall’s parking lot for shuttle service to the University of Texas football games and other special events. Cap Metro staff is currently completing a cost-benefit analysis on the football shuttle service . . . 3rd annual Communities Connecting conference . . . The Austin Police Department and the Communities Connecting for a Better Tomorrow Committee will partner to host a conference to encourage connecting between people and organizations in the Austin area community. Representatives from various businesses, non-profits, law enforcement, faith communities and local and state agencies will focus on what it takes to be an effective leader of change on their areas of influence, as well as on education, neighborhoods and the public sector. The conference will take place September 10-11, at the Doubletree Hotel, 16505 IH-35 North Austin. For information, call (512) 454-3737.

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