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Board backs changes to water plant plan

Friday, April 22, 2005 by

The city Environmental Board has put the brakes on the Austin Water Utility’s plans to begin work on the Travis Water Treatment Plant #4 (WTP4), sending city staff back to the drawing board on almost every aspect of the project.

Board members approved a recommendation to City Council this week that would force the project—on the books since a 1984 bond election—to undergo an alternative site selection process, a new environmental impact study and a needs assessment to see if it is necessary at all. The turnaround is the work of an Environmental Board subcommittee, which spent two months hammering out an agreement with the water utility and other city departments to address a host of concerns that arose when the project was presented to the board in February.

Among board members’ myriad concerns about the project, the biggest was that the WTP4 was planned for a 240-acre tract located in the environmentally sensitive Balcones Canyonlands Preserve (BCP) near Lake Travis. The city purchased the tract in 1985 after the bond election, but before the BCP was created in 1996.

Board Chair Mary Ruth Holder, the primary architect of the board’s plan, said the process was exhausting but rewarding. “I don’t think I’ve ever been through such a gut-wrenching process,” she said. “There was so much to cover, it was very hard sometimes to get my mind wrapped around it all. I lost a lot of sleep getting there, but it was a point I had to come to. I’m happy with the results.”

At the board’s request, the City Council postponed approval of a $6.5 million extension of a contract with Carollo Engineers for a preliminary engineering study in February. That began a series of meetings which resulted in the plan approved by the board Wednesday night.

City Environmental Officer Patrick Murphy and Assistant Director for Water Treatment Jane Burazer presented the city’s revised plan for WTP4. Major changes from the original city plan include:

• a five-month demand study;

• looking at capacity planning;

• conservation evaluation;

• alternative site analysis;

• mitigation/restoration evaluation;

• changing the maximum capacity to 300 million gallons a day;

• dividing the preliminary engineering study into two phases; and

• developing a communication plan to keep the Environmental Board and other city officials informed of progress.

In addition to those changes to the plan, city staff will begin a study of the viability of retrofitting or replacing the Green Water Treatment Plan on Town Lake. Staff will also evaluate the city’s water conservation and reuse programs, compare per capita use to similar cities, and identify other conservation strategies.

Staff also noted that because much of the rationale for building the WTP4 was based on projected peak day demand projections, they will reevaluate that factor as well as assess the potential impact of conservation and reclamation on those projections.

Some board members expressed concerns about the city staff performing an alternative site analysis and a mitigation study on the proposed site at the same time. “I just don’t see how the alternative site study can have any validity when we are still putting resources into studying the original site,” said Vice Chair Karin Ascot. “I am really concerned about the two studies going forward at the same time.”

Holder, whose subcommittee has worked long hours to negotiate the revised plan, said she had faith that the staff could perform both duties. “I have to trust the staff’s sincerity when they say they can perform both studies,” she said. “It’s important that we get the information from both studies.”

Holder made the motion for the project, which took up seven printed pages and spelled out the approach the city is expected to take in intricate detail. The motion outlines the review of alternatives, guidelines for cooperation between AWU and Watershed Protection and Development Review for environmental impact and mitigation review studies, mitigation funding for enhancements to the BCP program, and a detailed communication plan with the board and stakeholders in the WTP4 project.

The board approved the recommendation 6-1-1 with Board Member David Anderson recusing himself and new Board Member Julie Jenkins abstaining. Ascot voted against the plan, but explained that her only objection was the concurrent alternative site and mitigation studies. “I want the record to be clear that I wholeheartedly support the goals of this plan,” she said. “It’s a great plan and Mary Ruth (Holder) deserves our thanks for all her hard work on this.

The recommendation is scheduled to go to the City Council on May 12.

Notes from the campaign trail

Toll Party mailer raises questions, consultant's ire

Mail pieces advocating election of two different groups of City Council candidates hit voters’ mailboxes this week, but one of them could cause a headache—or worse—for some candidates.

The Austin Police Association Political Action Committee (APA PAC) tells voters “A safe city is a great city,” and urges the election of Lee Leffingwell, Gregg Knaupe and Betty Dunkerley. The flier from People for Efficient Transportation Political Action Committee (PET PAC) tells voters to elect Casey Walker, Margot Clarke and Wes Benedict.

The APA PAC piece is entirely positive, noting that both the police and EMS organizations had endorsed Leffingwell in Place 1, Knaupe in Place 3 and Dunkerley for re-election to Place 4. PET PAC’s mailer says positive things about the group’s endorsed candidates but also slams their opponents, particularly Leffingwell. PET PAC is the political action committee associated with the Austin Toll Party, founded by toll opponent Sal Costello.

PET PAC’s mailer features a giant toll booth on the cover and proclaims “only 3 candidates will fight all tolls on existing highways and refuse to take toll lobby money.” Color photographs and a brief profile of each candidate are included inside, along with a half-dozen cutout “push cards” for anti-toll activists to take to the polls. But it is an unusual political disclaimer that may signal trouble for the PAC and its favored candidates.

Clarke, the mailer says is “wise, compassionate, honest, and is the right choice for daily commuters.” The criticism of Place 3 opponents Knaupe and Mandy Dealey is relatively mild, mostly noting that they did not refuse to take toll road money or agree to fight for increased citizen’s rights via the initiative process. “Our group liked Jennifer Kim’s answers to the comprehensive questionnaire, but felt uneasy with the fact that she has support from toll proponents,” the flyer says.

Benedict is described as “a longtime activist who’s focused on getting through the ‘congestion’ at City Hall by opposing corporate subsidies and intrusive regulations that harm small businesses.” His opponent, Dunkerley, “does not oppose shifting some of our existing local highways to toll roads and she has not refused to take money from the toll lobby,” the flyer says.

Walker is aptly described as “a newcomer to politics” who “answered our questionnaire with flying colors,” while frontrunner Leffingwell is called a “run-of-the-mill bureaucrat” – an apparent reference to his years of service on the city’s Environmental Board. The mailer also attempts to link Leffingwell to TateAustin, the downtown PR firm recently awarded a contract to market CTRMA toll tags, via the phone number Leffingwell’s consultant used in responding to the PET PAC questionnaire.

Complicating the picture, however, was the mailer’s required disclaimer language, stating that it had been “paid for by the Margot Clarke, Wes Benedict and Casey Walker campaigns,” but also including this statement: “PET PAC adv. Treasurer Mike Petter.” The names of the treasurers for the three campaigns have been omitted from the mailer although Clarke said, “it was supposed to be on the piece.”

A consultant for Leffingwell and Dunkerley, Mark Nathan, said he believed the mail piece raised more serious questions. “That mail piece totally misrepresents the position that both Lee and Betty have always had, which is that they are both against tolling any current roads or any roads already funded with taxpayer money. If this piece was paid for exclusively by the three Austin Toll Party endorsed candidates, then I have to say that I’m incredibly disturbed that the Margot Clarke campaign would have helped to finance these false and even personal attacks on Lee Leffingwell and Betty Dunkerley.”

In Fact Daily, “All I know is that we approved what it said in our race.” When told about Nathan’s ire, she said, “He’s unhappy about what it said about Lee, and I don’t blame him because it was crappy. But we didn’t have any say over it. “

Clarke said each of the three campaigns contributed $3,000 to the mailing—giving the money directly to the printer. But Nathan questioned the ability of the trio to finance the flyer on their own.

Walker said his campaign had paid to be on a mailer sent out to toll road opponents.Benedict said the cost for the slick, four-color mailer had been divided equally among the three candidates, but they had used the mailing list generated by the Austin Toll Party over the past several months. "It's the candidates that paid for it," said Benedict. "It says so on there."

“Given the fact that the Toll Party disclaimer language also appears in several places on this mailer, and the fact that at least two of these three candidates had almost no ability to fund this mailer two weeks ago, I think that something would smell very fishy to any reasonable observer,” said Nathan. Candidates Walker and Benedict reported having no cash-on-hand in their 30-day finance reports filed on April 7, while Place 3 candidate Clarke said she had just over $3,000 cash-on-hand.

“There’s an even bigger problem, though, if the Toll Party funded this mailer jointly with their three endorsed candidates, even if they just spent one dollar” he said. “The City Charter prohibits PACs from coordinating expenditures with City Council candidates, and prescribes serious penalties for the candidates.

Nathan said it was true that Leffingwell’s campaign responded to the Toll Party questionnaire in March using TateAustin’s phone number, but that it was an honest mistake, which the candidate himself explained to Toll Party founder Sal Costello at the time. “I helped fill out the questionnaire, and because I worked at TateAustin almost five years ago, and because the phone number there, 476-7696, is very similar to Lee’s campaign phone number, 476-4526, I wrote down the wrong phone number by accident,” Nathan said. “It was a dumb mistake, but it was a mistake, and Lee explained that to Sal Costello, who told Lee that he understood that mistakes happen. But then he used it in the Toll Party’s attack mailer anyway in an attempt to link Lee to toll roads.”

Strayhorn plays to anti-toll crowd

Several hundred people gathered at the Doubletree North Hotel Thursday night for a mixture of music and politics, as Jimmie Vaughn and Texas State Comptroller Carol Keeton Strayhorn shared top billing at the " Tunes Not Tolls" concert to benefit the Austin Toll Party.

"It doesn't get better than being here with the fine men and women who are here fighting against double taxation, loose regulation, government infiltration, and fighting for efficient transportation and accurate information, and real relief from traffic congestion on a freeway system that once was and again will be the envy of the nation," said Strayhorn, who was honored with the group's Anti-Corruption Award. "I'm honored to be with you, I salute People for Efficient Transportation. What a difference that the People for Efficient Transportation make in this state."

" Governor Perry and his Department of Transportation want to cram toll roads down our throats," she said. She praised the group for its efforts to remove the William Cannon Bridge from the toll road plan adopted by CAMPO. "It was wrong, you stopped it, and I salute you again," she said. "

She also didn't mind taking a swipe at the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, along with Perry. Strayhorn said the CTRMA had pointed out it had done nothing criminal. "I never said it was criminal," Strayhorn told the crowd. "I said it was wrong."

Strayhorn's speech came in between sets from opening acts Bruce Jones and the Monotones and the J on Emery Band. Jones’ set included an anti-toll road song, with the chorus of "Takin' money from the pockets of the workin' man…somebody's gonna make a killing on the road plan."

Before Strayhorn's speech, members of her campaign team mingled with the crowd, handing out Strayhorn bumper stickers and reminding the toll road opponents that the Comptroller had not officially declared which office she would be seeking in 2006. The People for Efficient Transportation (PET PAC) was selling T-shirts and bumper stickers, and distributing literature touting the three candidates the group has endorsed for Austin City Council. Candidates Margot Clarke, Wes Benedict, and Casey Walker also had booths set up at the event to meet with voters and hand out campaign material. Each made a brief speech to the crowd before the set by headliner Jimmie Vaughn. Other exhibitors included musicians, supporters of a Round Rock mayoral candidate, and fans of a talk radio host.

Money raised from ticket sales will help fund PET PAC, which is hoping to mount a legal challenge against the toll road plan approved by CAMPO and the CTRMA.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Televised candidate forum . . . The League of Women Voters and the city’s Ethics Review Commission are conducting a candidate forum from 6-9pm Sunday at City Hall. The live session, which is open to the public, will begin with Place 1 candidates at 6pm. Place 3 candidates are scheduled for 7pm and Place 4 for 8pm. Not only will the forum be broadcast live on Channel 6, but it will be replayed throughout the days before the election . . . Early voting continues . . . Travis County reported last night that 1,777 voters made it to the polls Thursday, bringing to 3,349 the total number of early voters so far. Two years ago, when Mayor Will Wynn was running for the open position and candidates in that race were able to buy TV ads, 3,277 voters had cast ballots after the first two days of early voting. The University of Texas polling location recorded the highest turnout for the second straight day, followed by Northcross Mall, the HEB on South Congress, and Randall’s on Research. Voting will continue today but will shut down for this weekend, which is Passover. To find a list of early voting locations and hours visit: http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/election/evpl_050705 . . . Earth Day update . . . There will be an Earth Day rally and update from the 30-member Alliance for Clean Texas (ACT) at 11:30am today on south steps of the State Capitol. The groups will discuss the progress and challenges with bills this session on some of their legislative priorities for cleaning up Texas' air, water and land. Speakers will include Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston), Rep. Jessica Farrar (D-Houston), Bee Moorhead, Director of Texas Impact and Tom "Smitty" Smith, Director of Public Citizen . . . Saturday too . . . Saturday is It’s My Park Day. More than 500 local volunteers will participate in refurbishing and improving about 30 Austin parks. The event, sponsored by the Austin Parks Foundation, will focus on litter removal, clearing trails, weeding and planting. For more information, visit http://www.austinparks.org/ItsMyParkDay.html. The foundation requests that volunteers sign up by 5pm today . . . S mokers rally Sunday . . . Keep Austin Free will hold a rally against the proposed smoking ban at the Broken Spoke Sunday from 4-7pm. Featured guests include singer/writer/candidate for Governor Kinky Friedman, Kevin Fowler, White Ghost Shivers, Pauline Reese, and others. . . . Big Austin celebrates . . . Business Investment Growth (BIG Austin) will be celebrating its 10th year at a luncheon today at the Austin Hilton. The group will recognize four local small businesses for their achievements. Guest speakers include ESPN announcer and former UT basketball star Fran Harris and KVUE news anchor Olga Campos. Big Austin is a non-profit organization founded in 1995 as a single-source solution for entrepreneurial education, tailored business counseling and loans . . . The state of the peopl e . . . The NAACP of Austin is holding its own Town Hall meeting this weekend to discuss the state of African-Americans in Austin. The meeting will be at the King-Seabrook Chapel on the campus of Huston-Tillotson University on Saturday, at 1pm. The first city-sponsored meeting on the quality of life for African Americans will take place on Monday. Robena Jackson of Group Solutions RJW will facilitate that meeting, which will start at 6pm at the Street-Jones Building, 1000 E. 11th Street.

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