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Austin water & wastewater rates going up

Tuesday, September 7, 2004 by

EPA order, expansion lead to need for higher rates

City of Austin Water and Wastewater utility customers can expect a rate increase of nearly 12 percent this year, largely because the city’s aging infrastructure is undergoing massive upgrades. Most of those improvements are the direct result of an Environmental Protection Agency finding that Austin was violating the Clean Water Act, which resulted in a federal order to rebuild the system. In addition, the utility faces a growing demand for services, which leads to the building of new plants and infrastructure. The rate increase means bills will go up about $5 per month for the average customer.

Water and Wastewater Utility Director Chris Lippe outlined the department’s budget in a presentation for the City Council last week, pointing out that the average monthly bill for City of Austin residential customers is $42.53 for 8,500 gallons of water and 5,000 gallons of wastewater. That’s more than what residents of Dallas, El Paso and San Antonio who use the same amount of water currently pay. Lippe told In Fact Daily that many utilities raise their rates in January, and he expects San Antonio — which charges the average customer about $8 less than Austin — to follow suit. The San Antonio utility faces its own clean water issues as well as a demand for more capacity, he said. Lippe provided data showing that Austinites are paying considerably less than residents of Pflugerville, Cedar Park and Georgetown, all of which charge the average customer more than $62. San Marcos topped the survey at $74.26 for the same amount of water.

Deputy City Manager Joe Canales told the Council, “The city's utilities have established several solid program developments in positioning for the future. . . The Austin Clean Water Program has 70 projects underway. All are on or ahead of schedule. The utility has prepared a $157 million spending plan for the Clean Water Program over the next five years. . . Expansion of Ullrich ( Water Treatment Plant) to 160 million gallons daily will be completed next year.

A customer survey found that 86 percent of those questioned were satisfied with the quality of their drinking water, and 90 percent were satisfied with wastewater treatment. Following Lippe’s presentation, Council Member Daryl Slusher praised the utility, noting the high satisfaction rate. “That’s something —it’s been a while it’s been like that, but if you go back to the 80s, it wasn’t like that,” He added. Slusher said he was pleased to see that “environmental protection has been institutionalized at the water and wastewater utility.” That included an acceptance of the city’s growth policies, he said, recognizing the Desired Development Zone and the Drinking Water Protection Zone.

Both revenues and expenditures are down as a result of the unusual weather Austin experienced this year. “We had a wet winter, some wet spring months and definitely this summer we got hit,” Assistant Director Pervez Moheet explained. For the entire year, he said, utility revenues are about $12.5 million below projections.

However, Moheet said the utility will be able to make up some of those losses though cost containment in operations and management. The initiative will reduce expenditures by around $3.5 million, he said. He described “some aggressive debt management” actions, saving the utility $3-4 million in savings this year. That includes refunding some bonds early and issuing commercial paper in its place.

Commercial paper has a lower interest rate than bonds, said Moheet. “We also did not issue revenue bonds to refund our commercial paper. That will give us, between O&M and debt service, about $7 million,” He added. The City Council has set a policy that the utility pay at least 20 percent cash for capital improvement projects. By delaying the cash infusion to those projects, Moheet said, “we should be able to mitigate the entire $12 million impact on the ending budget this year.”

With the EPA order hanging over its head, the city cannot plead a lack of funds and postpone projects intended to improve water and wastewater services. Lippe acknowledged, “It’s going to make it a tight year.”

Neither Austin Energy nor the Solid Waste Services Department plans to raise rates for residential and regular commercial customers. Moheet promised that the water and wastewater utility would not raise rates again for at least two more years.

Council votes OKs original plan for Brodie 31

Last week the City Council approved the original plans for a 31-acre Planned Unit Development ( PUD) in the 9000 block of Brodie Lane. Those plans had undergone significant revisions on second reading at the urging of Council Member Brewster McCracken, who was responding to input from a coalition of area neighborhood groups. But the PUD approved on third and final reading for the property follows the plans of the developer, Bill Walters, who told Council members that many of the neighborhood's proposed changes were unfeasible or would require variances to the SOS Ordinance.

Known as Brodie 31, the PUD includes plans for one sit-down restaurant, one fast food restaurant, a single automotive repair facility, and convenience storage as the only permitted commercial use. In addition, a 4.2-acre conservation easement will surround two hazardous pipelines. The developer has promised an additional 10.7-acre easement and clustering away from several critical environmental features on city property adjacent to the Brodie 31 tract. The best known of those features is called the Blowing Sink, an aquifer formation. The city environmental staff supported Walters’ plan, which also prohibits the use of coal tar-based asphalt sealants and promises to direct storm water runoff away from the city’s nature preserve on Brodie. Paul Linehan of Land Strategies represented Walters.

The neighborhoods’ proposal would have changed the layout of the development, altered building heights, and prohibited some uses. The neighborhoods put together a "community vision" for what they called " Downtown Brodie," and brought in local architect Girard Kinney to help them with a design charrette to generate ideas for the site. Walters told the Council that he would continue to work with the neighborhoods, and that he supported the theories behind their ideas, but that their plans ultimately were not practical for the location in question. "I am a huge proponent of the 'main street' concept in traditional neighborhood design elements," he said. "So I'm very comfortable with what the neighborhood designed on my property." However, he added, adhering to the neighbors’ guidelines would have required moving drainage and retention ponds to the front of the property, pushing the buildings away from the street and adding more impervious cover in the form of additional driveways.

Neighbors also envisioned taller buildings than the one- and two-story project planned by Walters, and they were willing to allow a 50,000 square-foot pad site—10,000 square feet bigger than Walters' proposal. "I have no intention of doing a four-story project here," replied Walters. "Their offer to increase to 50,000 square feet is unnecessary, something I would not pursue. I would like to be able to work with this neighborhood in the site development permit phase, which is where design issues belong."

Council Member Brewster McCracken, who had pushed for the neighborhoods’ proposed changes to the PUD on second reading, denied that the Council was trying to design the project. "We did not do any design, any planning," he said. "We did two things: setbacks, uses."

McCracken argued for the inclusion of the neighborhoods’ requests in the final reading. "I think that we do have an obligation as a Council to make sure that we act in the public interest,” he said. “This neighborhood collected money and spent all day on a Saturday working hard…They hired a professional architect and what came out of that was a plan that reflected the values of the neighborhood," he said. "The don't want a typical development with a big parking lot in front of it. The Council should be backing up the neighborhood instead of stiff-arming them."

But Council Member Daryl Slusher sided with the developer. "I think that after all the back and forth I would go back and depend on our Environmental Board," he said. The Board had recommended the plans presented on first reading, but had not reviewed the version passed on second reading. Slusher moved approval of the developer's plans with the condition that they also prohibit drive-in restaurants. Council Member Betty Dunkerley seconded the motion, with the provision that the developer continue to work with the neighborhood groups. The motion passed 4-3, with Council Members McCracken, Raul Alvarez, and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman opposed.

More on toll roads . . . Council Member Daryl Slusher has responded at length to Council Member Brewster McCracken’s proposal last week to reopen the toll road debate at CAMPO. Some members of the group’s policy board, which voted 17-6 in July in favor of the $2.2 billion plan, have felt considerable pressure since the vote. Chief among those is Council Member Brewster McCracken, who along with Mayor Will Wynn and Council Member Danny Thomas are the subjects of a recall petition. Last week, McCracken said he would try to amend the toll road plan at next week’s CAMPO meeting to eliminate several roads that had already been financed by tax dollars. Meanwhile, on Friday Slusher issued a two-page statement, which says in part: "I welcome that change in position, but don’t believe it goes far enough. In my view, a more important and effective change would be to support reversal of the toll road vote at the September 13 CAMPO meeting . . .I believe we should reverse the July 12 vote, go to TxDOT as a united community, and say our local toll plan – consistent with Senator (Kay Bailey] Hutchison’s position – is to toll new roads: SH 130, SH 183A, SH 45 North, SH 45 Southeast, and Loop 1 North. We should request, as a united community, our fair share of tax dollars back for transportation in our region." . . . State Rep. Terry Keel, who like Slusher voted against the toll road plan, agreed. In a statement released along with Slusher’s, Keel said, "I remain firmly opposed, as a matter of both policy and principle, to imposing tolls on roadways constructed with tax dollars," he said, "but I agree with Councilman Slusher's point that removing only such projects from the plan does not solve equally important issues concerning many other roadways included in the toll plan and the poor quality of the overall plan itself." . . . Tonight’s meetings . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission will consider whether to suspend its own rules to allow reconsideration of a zoning change for Evergreen at Lamar . . . The Airport Advisory Commission, scheduled to meet at 5pm in Room 160, 2716 Spirit of Texas Dr., is expected to discuss the Aviation Department budget — which might sound dull, but could include a lively debate on whether to raise the fees for off-airport parking garages to the extent requested by management . . . The MBE/WBE Advisory Committee is scheduled to meet at 6pm at the DSMBR on Ed Bluestein Blvd . . . Representatives of PODER have filed an appeal to the Planning Commission’s decision granting a site plan conditional use permit to Austin Community College, which wants to expand the parking lot at its Eastview Campus on Webberville Road ( see “Planning Commission OKs more parking for ACC,” In Fact Daily, Aug. 16, 2004). That appeal now goes to the City Council. PODER Executive Director Susanna Almanza also took her complaints about the project to the Environmental Board last week, telling board members that city staff had administratively approved some variances that she would have preferred the Board to have reviewed. [Wasn’t Almanza on the Board as recently as last year? Might be good to add, just for background.] . . . New pool fees? . . . Travis County is considering charging a fee for the county's 150 public and semi-public pools. The fees — $95 for an annual permit and $50 for a plan review – are intended to cover the cost of pool inspections. The county has only had the right to charge for pool inspections since the last [Legislative?] session. . A hearing on the fee has been scheduled for Sept. 14, with the possible fees going into effect on Oct. 1….

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