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City moves ahead with landfill contract

Friday, November 19, 2004 by

Dunkerley adds environmental requirements

On a vote of 5-2, the City Council yesterday authorized city staff to begin negotiations with Industrial Environmental Services Inc. (IESI) to operate the city landfill on FM 812 next to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Member Raul Alvarez opposed the motion, indicating a need for long-term solutions to the city’s solid waste disposal problems. But the motion, crafted by Council Member Betty Dunkerley, created additional hurdles for IESI and the staff before they return to the Council for a final vote on the contract.

Dunkerley’s motion added a requirement that staff negotiate and bring back to the Council “a detailed environmental plan for the area (and) a wildlife conservation control plan.” She also said staff should include an escape clause in the contract for the city, “if we do come up with a long-range plan that recommends the closure of this facility.” Dunkerley said that part of the motion was in response to the Solid Waste Advisory Commission’s recommendation for long-range planning for solid waste disposal. The SWAC recommended against the contract with IESI, citing a need for a task force to come up with a long-term plan for the city’s trash problems. (See In Fact Daily, Nov. 15, 2004; Oct. 27, 2004.)

In addition to running the landfill to maximize revenue and minimize costs, the private company is being asked to “reduce or eliminate environmental liability” and continue taking in construction debris and brush for as long as possible. Once the landfill has reached maximum capacity, the city wants IESI to close the landfill and manage its care after closure.

Chief Financial Officer John Stephens, who has been overseeing the progress of the contract, said the earliest it might come back to the Council would be February.

Goodman pushed for implementation of the SWAC proposal in spite of the fact that she found herself unable to support the measure. But Mayor Will Wynn, who seconded Dunkerley’s motion, said he thought the motion was sufficient without additional instruction. He said, “I don’t know that we have to have a formal task force as part of this. I think staff understood the direction, understands the sensitive nature of the issue.”

Robin Schneider with the Texas Campaign for the Environment has accused IESI of failing to comply with state regulations governing landfills in other Texas cities and in operating its own landfill on FM 812, next to the city-owned landfill. Company representatives disputed Schneider's claims yesterday and during the October 28 Council meeting, saying that their facilities have an excellent record with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).

Regardless of who is running the city landfill, there will be some major problems to address, according to geologist Robert Kier, who works for Texas Disposal Systems (TDS), the other bidder on the contract. Kier said the city has numerous problems at the landfill, which was cited in July of 2003 for failing to manage leachate. In its simplest terms, leachate is liquid that has touched trash. Leachate is managed by removal, either on-site or off-site. But the competing company was unable to determine whether the leachate would have to be removed from the site—a much more expensive procedure—or if it could be moved to other areas of the landfill.

According to Gerry Acuña, chair of the SWAC, the City Council has already authorized almost $1 million to bring the landfill into compliance with federal and state laws. Acuña said he cannot understand why the city would want to give the site to another group.

But Stephens told the Council Thursday morning that the city is losing about $300,000 a year on the landfill. Later in the day, under questioning from Council Member Daryl Slusher, Stephens revised that figure to “about a million and a half a year.”

Jeff Peckham of IESI was tight-lipped about the contract but confirmed that he had said the city would realize “a $32 million advantage,” by entering the contract with his company.

One of the questions that lawyers for the parties will be dealing with is liability. Landfills are rather notorious for generating environmental lawsuits. Bob Gregory of TDS said the city should close its FM 812 landfill. “They should have closed it a long time ago. I think they’re depending on IESI to take over the responsibility — but they can’t absorb the city’s liability. He predicted that “IESI will give them an illusion they can’t deliver — an assumption of their liability. Federal law prohibits the passing of liability.”

Gregory said his company had trouble getting all the information it needed to bid on the project. One of the questions TDS asked was what would be the allowable maximum height of the landfill. The question is important because a taller mound of trash will mean a greater economic return for the landfill operator. The landfill is not allowed to take household trash, but is limited to construction materials and brush in order to minimize the number of birds who might be drawn to the site. Some pilots who fly small planes in and out of ABIA expressed concerns at yesterday’s meeting, showing pictures of birds sitting on top of the landfill.

In Fact Daily, “The City of Austin is still responsible for this landfill. The Council has already appropriated almost a million dollars and we’re going to turn around and give this to another group.” Acuna said the money had been budgeted to bring the landfill into compliance with federal and state laws.

No decision on historic ordinance changes

Council members were clearly at an impasse on the historic preservation ordinance last night as the clock struck midnight, coming out of an executive session only for Mayor Will Wynn to announce that the Council had come to no decision and would take no action.

About two-dozen speakers signed up to speak at last night’s hearing on the proposed revisions to the ordinance. Most were requesting that the city “keep its word” on the current tax abatement policy, an argument that clearly swayed a number of Council members but especially Council Member Brewster McCracken.

The Council went into executive session to talk about the historic preservation ordinance, among other items, but especially the legalities the City Attorney’s office has insisted makes it impossible for the city to grandfather tax abatements on historic landmarks.

The most touching testimony of the evening came from the frail and elderly Martha Hawkins, who strives to maintain the Red-Purcell House as she lives on a fixed income. Her mother was a well-known educator in Austin. The house, on Academy Drive near the Texas School for the Deaf, has the same hinges as the Texas Capitol.

Hawkins said she struggled with her expenses as she paid for a new roof and new paint on the home, as well as the need to trim the trees on her 1.6-acre lot.

“If I don’t have the exemptions, it’s going to be awfully hard on this little old lady. But I promised my mother I would keep the house in the family if at all possible,” Hawkins told the council, her voice breaking. The audience stood and clapped as she sat down.

Betty Baker, who chaired the historic preservation task force, made a point of telling the Council before it took testimony that the task force still strongly and unanimously wanted to grandfather those owner-occupied homes that have been landmarked by the city.

A number of lawyers stood up to speak, telling the Council they did not understand the logic behind the opinion that tax abatements could not be grandfathered. Before he went into executive session, McCracken, who is himself an attorney, met with the lawyers, asking them to provide him with any written material and questions he could take into the meeting.

Grandfathering dominated the discussion. The other topic mentioned was the need to create a local historic district. Mike Clark-Madison spoke specifically to pairing the creation of the local historic districts in East Austin with city or non-profit financial assistance to rehabilitate and maintain affordable housing.

Originally, the task force recommended that all currently designated owner-occupied landmarks retain their city tax exemptions: 100 percent of the value of the structure and 50 percent of the value of the land. They would have only allowed tax exemptions for new landmark buildings that were at least 75 years old and when the historic buildings changed hands they would have lost the tax exemption if they were less than 75 years old.

No changes were recommended for income-producing property. However, when the task force was reconvened and asked to revise their recommendation, they said they still wanted the grandfather concept. But if the Council could not agree to that, the task force came up with a much more complex alternative scenario that would reduce the exemptions on currently designated property from 100 percent on the structure to 85 percent over a three-year period. The maximum exemption would be the greater of $2,000 or 50 percent of the tax bill. They did not make any changes in their recommendation to leave the tax exemption for commercial property at its current rate, 50 percent of the value of the structure and 25 percent of the value of the land.

Money for US183A LCRA, says board VP

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority could claim $131 million in state and federal funding for the US 183A turnpike project at the end of yesterday’s Texas Transportation Commission meeting.

The Federal Highway Administration has approved a $66 million TIFIA loan application on US 183-A project. TIFIA is the Federal Highway Administration’s Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act. CTRMA Chair Bob Tesch told the Texas Transportation Commission yesterday morning that a team from the CTRMA was in Washington, D.C., this week to work out the terms and conditions of the agreement.

“We’re very excited and very pleased with the positive response the CTRMA has had in Washington,” Tesch told the commissioners.

The Texas Transportation Commission’s commitment under the adopted toll equity rules was to approve $65 million for the 12-mile US 183A toll project. Actually, the amount breaks down to $50 million from the Texas Mobility Fund and $15 million from the TxDOT Austin District’s discretionary funds. The $50 million was set in motion when the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization amended its long-range plan.

Tesch said the CTRMA is close to signing a Comprehensive Development Agreement with the Hill Country Constructors team chosen to build the $178 million US 183A project, which will extend from State Highway 45 to FM 1431. Tesch said the loans would make it possible to sell bonds in January.

The commission gave its second, and final, approval of the $21.5 billion Statewide Mobility Program. Within that total is the $15.4 billion Texas Metropolitan Mobility Plan, which provides funding for suggested projects in the eight largest metropolitan areas in the state. That includes $3 billion in bonds.

“Just as Gov. Perry predicted, the worst parts of these plans ultimately were removed in the local process,” Chair Ric Williamson said. “We stayed out of it and he stayed out of it, and the result was a pretty robust and forward-thinking plan for each of the metro areas. There was no waiting for the federal road fairy to show up.”

Executive Director Michael Behrens said the Texas Metropolitan Mobility Plan would move 90 percent of the scheduled road projects forward in half the expected time. That means the expected timeline of 12, 14 or even 16 years can now be compressed into 6 to 8 years, according to Williamson. In May, the commission also approved $9 billion for road maintenance.

According to the TIFIA website, the Federal Highway Administration offered letters of intent for $2.8 billion in direct loans on projects valued at $15.4 billion. Those projects included the TransBay Terminal/CalTran Downtown Extension, Sprinter Rail Project in San Diego, the Virginia I-81 improvements, the initial link in the Puget Sound light rail project, the Intermodal Expansion of the Port of Anchorage, the Downtown Intermodal Terminal Project in Chicago and the US 183A project. In 2003, TIFIA offered a $917 million loan on the Central Texas Turnpike Project, which is still less than the $1.1 billion loan it offered in 2002 to the Pennsylvania high-speed rail project.

APD charges officer with official oppression

The Austin Police Department's Integrity Crimes Unit is investigating a two-year member of the department on the suspicion that he abused the authority of his office on at least two occasions. Officer Jason Lockaby, 34, is facing criminal charges of Official Oppression, a Class A Misdemeanor, and Violation of the Civil Rights of a Person, a State Jail Felony.

Department officials say the two charges stem from two separate incidents. In one case, Lockaby is believed to have offered not to arrest a woman with an outstanding warrant if she exposed herself to him. The civil rights charge stems from allegations that Lockaby inappropriately touched a woman who was arrested after a traffic stop. Assistant Police Chief Robert Dahlstrom says the Integrity Crimes Unit discovered the second case while investigating the first complaint. "There's a possibility of other victims out there," said Dahlstrom. "If that is accurate, we need them to contact us."

The investigation into Officer Lockaby will proceed along two separate tracks. In addition to the criminal cases, the department will also conduct an administrative review that has the potential to lead to an indefinite suspension. For now, Lockaby is on restricted duty with pay. "Like any organization, every now and then you have an officer who makes a bad call," said Dahlstrom. "When that happens, we act quickly and file the charges that are appropriate."

ZAP reappointment . . . Council Member Daryl Slusher reappointed Clarke Hammond yesterday to the Zoning and Platting Commission . . . Misleading signature collector . . . While visiting a local establishment, a reporter was asked to sign a petition to “stop the toll roads.” The petitioner said that enough signatures might be enough to convince the CAMPO board to rescind its action on toll roads. There was no mention of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, but the Governor’s name was invoked. If all else fails, said the petitioner, three Council members would be recalled. They would then be replaced by three State Representatives who have promised to vote against toll roads, he said. Questioned about whether those Council Members wouldn’t be replaced by other members of the City Council, the petitioner was adamant—but wrong—in his assertions . . . Boggy Creek improvements funded . . . The Texas Transportation Commission agreed yesterday to chip in some of the cost of channelization improvements along US 183 at Boggy Creek. The bank erosion project, estimated to cost $2.2 million, will address erosion around a 48-inch wastewater collector under the US 183 bridge. The city and TxDOT are expected to pick up about $600,000 apiece on the project, with the US Army Corps of Engineers picking up about $1 million. The City of Austin will be responsible for any unanticipated additional costs on the project . . . Anti-smoking update . . . The American Cancer Society used the 28th annual " Great American Smoke-Out" on Thursday to officially launch its campaign for a new "smoke-free" ordinance for Austin. Supporters have already begun gathering signatures to get a new smoking ordinance on the ballot next May. Cancer Society representative Rodney Ahart disputed the claims of some restaurant owners who are lining up to oppose the proposal on the grounds that that the existing smoking ordinance has already hurt their business. "I think you have to have several quarters of data to be able determine if this is an impact of a new ordinance," he said . . . Water conservation comments . . .Williamson County Commissioners are seeking input from the public and other interested parties regarding the possible creation of a groundwater conservation district. The water district could include Williamson, northern Travis and Burnet counties. Commissioners Lisa Birkman (Pct. 1) and Frankie Limmer (Pct. 3) hosted a meeting for all stakeholders interested in the Priority Groundwater Management Assessment currently under way by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) on Nov. 15. (See In Fact Daily, Nov. 16, 2004) Williamson County has been asked to provide comments to the TCEQ regarding the creation of a groundwater district. Comments presented at the meeting will be reviewed during Commissioners Court on Nov. 30. . . . Closed for the holiday . . . If you have business with the City of Austin, Travis County or Williamson County, you should get it done early next week. County and city offices will be closed on Thursday, Nov. 25, and Friday, Nov. 26, for the Thanksgiving holiday. Offices will resume regular hours on Monday, Nov. 29. In Fact Daily will also take next Thursday and Friday off.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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