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Environmental group opposes landfill plan

Wednesday, October 27, 2004 by

Group says proposal could mean ecological disaster

The city staff plan to turn over the operation of a municipal landfill near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport to a private contractor is drawing criticism from local environmentalists. The proposal, put forth by the city’s Solid Waste Services Department, would award the contract to IESI of Fort Worth, which operates a similar landfill next to the 382-acre city site at FM 812 and FM 973.

City staff claims the arrangement would make the operation more cost effective, but the Texas Campaign for the Environment (TCE), among others, warns that it could precipitate an ecological disaster, and possibly worse. Some city leaders apparently agree, and have pulled the item off of this week’s City Council agenda for further study.

“This landfill has been a problem for the city. It’s 50 years old and sits on the banks of Onion Creek and Richard Moya Park,” said Robin Schneider, executive director of the TCE. “As recently as 1991, the landfill dumped a quarter million cubic yards of garbage into the creek and the park. And, even though it’s not supposed to take household garbage, the landfill is attracting birds, not a good thing to have in the airport’s flight path.”

The city stopped taking household refuse at the landfill in 1999 when the new airport opened next door. Even though the city holds a permit for a Type I landfill, which can accept all types of refuse, it is operating under Type IV landfill rules, accepting only construction and demolition materials, according to William Rhodes, director of the city’s Solid Waste Services.

“Keeping the landfill open has allowed the city to dispose of tree limbs and other waste from storms without paying any fees,” said Rhodes. ”But the city is losing money on the operation otherwise, so we are looking to find a more efficient way to operate the site.”

Schneider claims that the city landfill continues to have major problems, such as no liners in its older sections, groundwater monitoring wells that show pollution beneath the refuse, pollution in nearby Onion creek, and potentially explosive leaking methane gas. She also claims that ISEI is ineligible to sign a new contract because it has failed to pay the city a number of required fees.

Schneider believes that the city has not explored all the possible options and pitfalls of the arrangement, particularly in dealing with IESI, which she says has a history of “underhanded” operations in Texas.

“ISEI runs the landfill next to the city site,” Schneider said. ”They are not supposed to take household garbage, but their site is attracting birds and is directly under the airport’s flight patterns. They are not covering the waste properly, and we have photos showing buzzards feeding on the garbage on weekends.”

Schneider adds that the Council last year rejected a 65-year contract with ISEI, and earlier this year, the city’s Solid Waste Advisory Commission voted against a proposal by Rhodes to negotiate only with ISEI on the current project.

Following that, Rhodes opened the project up to the bidding process, but in the end, still recommended that the city contract with ISEI to operate the site.

“Because of its location next to the city landfill and the resulting economies of scale, ISEI was able to offer the city incentives that will cut our expenditures at the landfill on FM 812 and still provide reduced disposal rates,” he said.

No word yet on when the proposal might re-emerge before the Council. TCE’s Schneider hopes the powers that be will take a hard look at the proposal. She said the city should have the Solid Waste Advisory Commission and the city’s Environmental Board conduct a full review of all options, look closely at the risks of continuing to operate this landfill and privatizing the landfill, which is so close to the airport, and look at the environmental record of any company that partners with the city to run the site.

Supreme Court reverses order against Republican PAC

The Associated Republicans of Texas (ART) were happy once again yesterday after the Texas Supreme Court overturned a temporary restraining order preventing the group from collecting and spending corporate contributions. ART spokeswoman Pat Robbins said, "It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood," following the release of Justice Nathan Hecht’s opinion supporting the Republican's contention that the TRO issued last week by Judge Paul Davis was inappropriate. Robbins called the lawsuit, filed by Democratic candidates David Liebowitz (House District 117) and Bobby Glaze (House District 5), "frivolous."

On the other side of the fence, Mark Nathan of Archer Nathan Consulting, an advisor to both Democratic candidates, said, “The bottom line is that corporate cash is tainting Texas politics and public policy. I think it’s important to remember that the Supreme Court’s action today was not a decision on the merits, but rather an action to abate the TRO.” That, it turned out, was not the final response from the disgruntled Democrats, who filed a motion for rehearing with the Supreme Court.

ART's attorneys have been ordered to respond by noon today. However, cynics might expect the seven Republican justices—two have resigned for other opportunities—to dismiss the Democrats’ newest pleadings.

In his opinion, Justice Hecht compared the current case to one in which the court granted a petition for mandamus for a Democratic Party candidate to remove his primary opponent from the ballot. The judge said this case is at least as important as that one, possibly more important. The issues in the older cases cited, he said, "impacted only one state race; the issues in this case impact all the races to which ART PAC contributes. The statewide importance of the issues in this case is greater” than in the others cited.

However, he wrote, "the plaintiffs' allegation raises important and difficult issues that have not been resolved by trial on the merits. Those issues center on the proper construction” of parts of the election code and whether the Republicans have violated it. The timing of the lawsuit seemed particularly suspect to the Supreme Court justices, as did the setting of the temporary injunction hearing on the day after the election.

But given the opportunity to rule on the meaning of the section of the election code in dispute—which deals with corporate contributions—the Texas Supreme Court declined. They will no doubt have an opportunity to do so later.

Dallas lawyer Susan Hays, responded on behalf of the Democrats, "By accepting ART's misrepresentations, this Court has placed the entire 2004 electoral process in question, casting a shadow on the integrity of the electoral process by opening the ballot box to the corrosive effect of corporate cash. Indeed, if ever there is a time necessitating injunctive relief at the trial court level, preserving the electoral system from corruption is such a time," she wrote.

Hays said the Republicans misled the Supreme Court, causing the erroneous assumption that Judge Davis had not offered ART PAC an opportunity for a hearing before the election. “Indeed, several dates were presented and ART PAC's counsel chose to have the hearing after the election. Therefore, if there is any ‘permanent’ harm it is per ART PAC's own design." Hayes also said in her brief that the Republicans’ misled the court about when certain reporting requirements went into effect and when the Democrats could have known that ART PAC was using corporate money.

Fred Lewis president of Campaigns for People, an organization dedicated to clean campaigns and better reporting of the use of corporate money, said prior to January of this year there was no legal requirement for a political action committee to report corporate contributions. Since that time, Lewis said, Travis County Grand Jury indictments have discouraged a lot of corporate contributions. But that was not the case with ART PAC, he said. The plaintiffs had to wait until the most recent Ethics Commission filing was available, in October, Lewis said, to know whether the Republican’s committee was still accepting such contributions.

Robbins said the court’s ruling “was not a matter of stopping us from doing anything.” She pointed out, as she did last week, that ART PAC only has $3000 in its corporate account. As for the Democrats, she said, " their basis for filing was wrong.” She said she hoped that the Texas Ethics Commission and the Texas Legislature would “come together and enact some legislation. And we will follow it, whatever it is. It has always been legal to pay legal fees, and overhead” with corporate money, Robbins said. “But if this forces a bill to be passed….or if it forces the Ethics Commission to come out with a written decision” that says otherwise, “we will follow it.”

Discussion of proposed toll road rules today

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) Board will hear a report this morning on draft toll policies that the agency’s staff has labeled "customer-friendly." Toll policies will apply to all CTRMA projects and drive issues such as setting up toll tags, maintaining toll tag accounts and assessing fines against toll violators. The draft policy also will set introductory periods for free and

reduced price tolling on each toll project.

Mayor Will Wynn and County Judge Sam Biscoe sent a letter to the CTRMA, praising the group for its public participation in the toll policies. Those policies will be up for review for the next month, with the CTRMA board approving the final policy in December.

Wynn and Biscoe stressed that the members of CAMPO who voted in favor of amending the 2025 plan to use toll roads will continue to watch CTRMA's progress in educating and convincing the public of the usefulness of toll roads. “In the process of reviewing and shaping the final form of this document, community members will have ample opportunity to assure that the construction of tolled road capacity not only provides new and rapid routes for travel but that these new toll roads are acceptable to the public that uses them," they wrote.

At Tuesday's subcommittee hearing, Board Members Joanne Zmud, Jim Mills and Henry Gilmore reviewed the draft policy.

The board likely will set up a fairly generous policy for introducing drivers to the toll roads. The policy would apply for the first six months a toll road project is open. Under the proposal, the first four weeks of usage would be free to all drivers, whether or not those drivers have bought a toll tag. For those who have a toll tag, free usage could be available for up to eight weeks. Beyond that, the CTRMA is willing to offer half-price tolls to toll tag users for an additional four months, providing six months of reduced fees.

Introductory incentive programs are considered a marketing expense by the state, which set guidelines for toll road operations under House Bill 3588. Beyond the introductory timeline, toll road customers will be penalized for failing to pay for tolls. For a serious lapse of payment, the CTRMA will be able to charge a $25 administrative fee. If the customer calls the authority office and re-establishes a toll road account within 30 days, the CTRMA can choose to waive or reduce the administrative fee.

The state is encouraging the creation of a seamless system of toll tag usage. The same toll tag could be used on the North Texas, Harris County or Central Texas toll systems. Hence, the Texas Department of Transportation is considering the possibility of offering free toll tag transponders to Central Texas toll road users. In other jurisdictions, toll tags have cost up to $20. Central Texas drivers may be getting their tags for free.

School buses and Capital Metro buses will be charged a toll fee but that fee will be based on cost for a passenger vehicle, rather than the typical increased charge of a multi-axle vehicle. The CTRMA still must establish the policies for emergency vehicles. The state may issue a sticker for the bumper of 18-wheelers that can be used for toll tag systems.

The toll tag user would activate the transponder with a deposit. Here, too, the CTRMA is proposing discounts. The RMA has proposed the first $10 on any transponder be free, plus a 10 percent discount for toll tag users. The toll tag user would need to put down a deposit of $20, with a minimum balance of $10. Once the toll tag account fell below $10, the account would be "refreshed" by credit card, with the permission of the toll tag user. A toll tag user would know the account balance was low by a flashing "yellow" light as the car passed through the automated toll tag lane.

Gilmore wanted to explore "frequent user" discounts. In some jurisdictions, a monthly deposit covers unlimited usage of the toll roads. The CTRMA could consider that a deposit – maybe something like a flat monthly rate of $40 – could cover an unlimited number of trips. Consulting Engineer Richard Ridings said the RMA had not explored all the options for a frequent user program. Zmud pointed out the "frequent user" concept might be more difficult with an open toll road system where one transponder could be used on multiple toll road systems in the state. In Dallas, the toll tag also can be used to pay for airport parking.

The policies incorporated the feedback from a number of meetings with stakeholders. Comments from the 200 or so participants in the stakeholder process indicated an interest in flexibility (both cash and credit card options for toll tags, congestion pricing discounts and transferable tags. Stakeholders also said they want accountability as well as accessibility. That translates into easy ways to buy tags, low rates and simple payment systems.

A 30-day public comment period on the toll policies will start on Nov. 1. An open house is scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 11, at the Norris Conference Centers at Northcross Mall, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. A board meeting and public hearing on the toll policies will follow the open house. The CTRMA board is scheduled to approve the policy on Dec. 8 and present it to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization's Transportation Policy Committee on Dec. 13. – Kimberly Reeves

Pace of voting picks up . . . Nearly 20,000 voters cast ballots in Travis County yesterday—surely a record, but we won’t ask until next week when it’s over. That brings to 141,440 the total number of voters taking advantage of the long early voting period. That’s about a quarter of those registered–so many that Glenn Maxey, who is in charge of the Travis County Democrats’ coordinated campaign effort, has declared election day to be Thursday and Friday—the final two days of early voting—instead of next Tuesday. Maxey said based on the current numbers he expects that 50 percent of those registered will have voted by the end of the day on Friday . . . Fishing for trouble . . . The Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, or SEED, will unveil a national report this morning on toxic mercury contamination of fish. Although Texas issued no new fish consumption advisories last year, the state has 5 of the top 10 mercury-emitting coal plants in the nation. The report, "Fishing for Trouble: How Toxic Mercury Contaminates Fish in U.S. Waterways," will be presented at 11am on 11th and Congress, near the street in front of the Capitol . . . Jail variance request coming . . . The Texas Commission on Jail Standards will hear a variance request from Travis County, among others, at a meeting on November 4. A total of 11 counties, including Dallas, Collin and Tarrant, will request variances from the commission . . . Today’s meetings . . . Oops!. . Although we said it was meeting yesterday, the Council’s Committee on Telecommunication Infrastructure will meet at 3:30pm today in Room 304 of City Hall . . . A meeting of the Historic Preservation Task Force, previously scheduled for tonight, has been cancelled . . . Debate in Round Rock . . . Candidates for the District 31 Congressional seat will square off tonight in Round Rock. Republican incumbent Congressman John Carter will debate campaign issues with Democratic challenger Jon Porter from 6 to 8pm in the Council Chambers at City Hall, 221 E Main St. District 31 covers the southern half of Williamson County and runs east through the Bryan-College Station area and southeast to portions of Harris County.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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