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Panel rejects landfill contract

Thursday, April 28, 2005 by

SWAC cites lack of information on 65-year contract with IESI

Escalating a confrontation that has been building for the past seven months, the city Solid Waste Advisor Commission unanimously refused last night to recommend a proposed contract for a private firm to operate the FM 812 Landfill. The City’s Solid Waste Services Department staff is recommending that City Council approve a contract for IESI of Fort Worth to take over daily management of the landfill for 65 years, or longer.

The Council gave Solid Waste Services the go ahead to negotiate a contract with IESI last November, after approving the concept of having a private contractor operate the landfill.

Information, or the lack of it, was cited by commission members as the main reason they declined to recommend the contract at a special called meeting of board. Chair Gerry Acuna and other commission members felt there were too many aspects of the contract that were being kept from them.

“We all share the frustration,” Acuna said, talking directly to SWS Director Willie Rhodes. “This would be so much easier if you didn’t keep the cards so close to your vest. In this and in other matters, we have not been given the information we need to decide on a contract that will last 65 years. We have a responsibility to the ratepayers. This needs to be done properly.”

City officials say the process—not the staff involved—is the reason for the lack of information. Attorney Holly Noelke said the city used a request for proposal (RFP) process that dictated that many of the details of the agreement be kept secret until the contract is signed.

“Under Chapter 252 of the Government Code, terms are not open to the public until the contract is awarded,” she said. “That is designed to protect the governmental body, and to not give any companies a competitive advantage in the process. There is a certain level of information that can be divulged, but many of the things you are asking us about we are not free to discuss.”

That explanation did not satisfy most of the board members. “If we can’t see the terms of the contract, then why are we here?” asked Member Rosemary Wyman. “There really isn’t much point, is there?”

Under the contract, IESI would take over the day-to-day operations of the city’s RM 812 Landfill, which is just south of Austin Bergstrom International Airport. IESI already owns and operates a separate landfill adjacent to the city property. The fact sheet given to the commission said it was a two-phase contract, with IESI taking over management of most of the operations at the city facility until state and federal permits are awarded allowing the city and IESI landfill to merge.

IESI would then operate the combined facilities for the useful life of landfill and for 30 years post closure. According to Rhodes, the city would see a $32 million profit from the arrangement

Others beside the commission members cited problems with the landfill site. Jay Carpenter, president of the Bergstrom Austin Pilots Association, said having a landfill so close to a major airport was an accident waiting to happen.

“We have major concerns over air safety,” he said. “Federal law bans landfills from being within five miles of a major airport, but this landfill is about 1,000 feet from the end of the runway. We have documented evidence of turkey vultures roosting at the landfill. Whatever amount of money the city thinks it’s saving by having this landfill continue to operate will pale in comparison to what a lawsuit from a plane crash will cost them.”

Robin Schneider with Campaign for a Clean Texas urged the commission not to simply take the city staff’s word that everything will be OK. “We have had enough empty Intel Building s, Block 21s and the like,” she said. “The citizens of Austin always end up paying the bill for these debacles. This is a contract for 65 years or longer, but IESI has only been in business for 10 years.”

In his draft motion passed by the board 6-0 with Member J. D. Porter absent, Acuna said the contract did not accomplish the Council’s primary objectives, particularly to cut city costs and reduce or eliminate environmental liability. “SWAC strongly recommends that a separate RFP be drafted that more accurately reflects what SWS has acquiesced to in this proposed agreement,” it read. “A revised RFP … would certainly invite more positive responses from proposed bidders.” It also said a new RFP would allow the Council-commissioned Long Range Solid Waste Planning Task Force to complete its objectives.

The City Council is expected to consider the contract at its May 12 meeting.

Notes from the campaign trail

Austin Interfaith preaches to candidates about social services

Members of Austin Interfaith made their case for more funding for social services in the city budget Tuesday night. They heard from most of the candidates running for the City Council, questioning them about their support for after-school programs, affordable housing, code enforcement, and public safety in what the described as an "accountability session" rather than a traditional candidate forum.

At the top of Austin Interfaith's agenda is the restoration of funding cuts from the budget for social services during recent tough budget times. "Bricks and mortar do not build great cities. People who can think deeply, communicate effectively, and perform well in high-paying jobs are what build great cities. Yet the city recently underwent an across-the-board budget cut in the Department of Health and Human Services," said Ann Teich, a member of the First United Methodist Church (see In Fact Daily, August 13, 2004.) "City Council candidates, we want that money restored!"

Before posing their questions to the candidates gathered in the gymnasium of St. Ignatius Catholic Church in South Austin, representatives of the different groups which make up Austin Interfaith gave testimonials about the various programs that social service contracts support. Those include Capital IDEA, English as a Second Language classes, the PrimeTime after-school program, and the Summer Youth volunteer program ( http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/library/syvprogram.htm). "When the school bell rings, the anxiety of parents often just begins," said Stella Mata. "Anxiety about whether their children are safe…about whether they're getting involved in drugs and crime." Programs like PrimeTime, she said, could help prevent that. Place 1 candidate Andrew Bucknall said he would enthusiastically support all of the group's goals, including boosting funding for after-school activities. "My son was in PrimeTime. It's a great program," he said. "I definitely think we should support that and increase funding."

Write-in candidate Steve Adams was one of the few to candidates to disagree with the group's premise that social services were underfunded. "I've heard some great testimonials, but I've seen no facts or figures or anything that says what needs to be increased," he said. "We'd be bad candidates and bad politicians if we just said 'yes' to every question." Adams said he would definitely be in favor of only one of the group's priorities, which was the addition of safety barriers around Buttermilk Creek, where two young children recently drowned. He said he would need more information before supporting more funding for social services, increasing the size of the affordable housing trust fund, and requiring a minimum of 25 percent of the housing developed in new Transit-Oriented Development districts to meet the city's affordability guidelines. Place 1 candidate Lee Leffingwell did not attend the session, having suspended campaign activities following the recent death of his wife. Leffingwell is still a candidate, and one of the moderators of the session told the group he had previously submitted a response indicating he was in favor of all of their issues.

In Place 3, all four candidates expressed enthusiastic support for the group's three top priorities of social service funding, promoting affordable housing, and improving safety around schools. Candidate Mandy Dealey, who normally stresses her involvement in Planned Parenthood, instead chose to remind the audience about her involvement with the Austin Area Human Services Association( http://www.austinhumanservices.org/default.asp). Jennifer Kim stressed her work on affordable housing dealing with colonias along the Texas-Mexico border, while Gregg Knaupe called for more affordable child care and Margot Clarke told the group she believed the city needed to make a much greater commitment to affordable housing.

Place 4 candidate Wes Benedict also told the group he supported all three of their priorities, giving the former Executive Director of the Travis County Libertarian Party something in common with self-described "progressive liberal" Andrew Bucknall in Place 1 and all four candidates in Place 3. He cited time spent in Italy and Mexico as giving him insight into the difficulties of learning a second language, saying he would support funding for the ESL program. He linked his support for more affordable housing to his criticism of tax abatements for businesses. "I'm concerned that we've been giving tax breaks to the largest corporations in the world, but that's at the expense of higher property taxes on small businesses and homeowners," he said. "If we stopped that practice, we would not be putting so much pressure on property values in Central Austin, and that would make housing more affordable."

Place 4 incumbent Betty Dunkerley outlined the steps she had already taken to address the group's concerns, saying she supported all of their spending priorities. "For many, many years I've worked with these programs," she said, referring to her tenure as a city employee before being elected to the Council. "I know how important they are, so that's why I support them. I've already talked to the City Manager, and I've asked her to include some of these in her base budget. For example, I've asked her to look at putting in a 5 percent increase for social services and a $1 million transfer to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Affordable housing is a major priority for me, not just in the TOD's but in the rest of the community."

The meeting ended with a call from Father John Korcsmar of Dolores Catholic Church for members to "vote their conscience." The group does not offer endorsements.

*** **

Grieving Place 1 candidate Lee Leffingwell will make an announcement about his City Council campaign at 10:30am today at his home, 4001 Bradwood Road. Leffingwell’s wife, Mary Lou McLain, died on Friday and he suspended his campaign in order to deal with the family tragedy and sort out his thoughts.

Place 3 candidates Jennifer Kim and Margot Clarke both have television ads running, although Kim is clearly throwing a lot more money into the effort, with heavy buys on high dollar local news stations and programs like “ Dr. Phil.” Her ad started yesterday, while Clarke began running her spot on Monday. Clarke’s ad is running on cable shows such as CNN and The Daily Show, with a smattering of local morning news spots. There has been no word from the other camps about whether they intend to run TV or not.

Friday is the deadline for candidates to turn in their 8-day contribution and expenditure report. Place 4 candidate Phillip Miller, who has not been an active campaigner so far, turned his report in yesterday. The report shows that he has received a total of $250 in contributions, but fails to list the names of those contributing. He spent $5122.92, some of it in surprising ways. For example, Miller spent $576 for political ads in the Pflugerville newspaper and $500 for a “political rally” at Rabbit’s Lounge in East Austin. Miller also paid $2500 to Border Media Communications for radio commercials.

Gregg Knaupe is holding his final fundraiser prior to the May 7 election tonight from 5-7pm at 219 West Lounge at 219 W 4th St. Knaupe had won the editorial support of the ultra-conservative Austin Review. Dealey won the endorsement of the Daily Texan and shared the endorsement of the Austin Chronicle with Clarke. Kim won the endorsement of the American-Statesman.

The candidates endorsed by the Austin Toll Party showed up at Wednesday's opening ceremonies for the William Cannon Bridge on MoPac. As TxDOT officials and Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty cut a giant yellow ribbon to signify the long-awaited bridge was officially open for traffic, Casey Walker, Margot Clarke, Wes Benedict, and members of the Austin Toll Party demonstrated their approval of the fact that the bridge will not be a toll road. However, Toll Party organizer Sal Costello said their campaign is still working to remove portions of State Highway 71, US 183, and SH 290 from the toll road plan. After the ribbon-cutting, a volunteer with the Austin Toll Party asked shoppers at the nearby Randall's if they would like to "sign against the toll roads.”

Planning Commission OKs design standards

The Planning Commission was the final city board to put its stamp of approval on a proposed new set of retail and commercial design standards, which will finally get a public hearing before the City Council tonight.

Design standards are 10 years overdue, Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman told Planning Commissioners Tuesday night. The Citizens Planning Committee, comprised of business and community interests, mentioned the need as early as 1995, Goodman said. But the important thing is to start the process, even incrementally, she said.

“We just have to figure out again, in my opinion, how to take the largest steps we can without impacting any of the interests that are vital to our community,” Goodman said.

Goodman said the later the process starts, the larger the expenditures for redevelopment or catharsis in the personality of an area.

Planner Katie Larsen highlighted the most recent changes in the commercial design standards, dated Monday. Those changes include revisions to the names of the road types, setback requirements, maximum parking and building design. Council Member Brewster McCracken, who also attended the commission meeting, told the group commercial design standards were still a work in progress. And his assistant, Karen Gross, specifically referred to the current iteration as a working document. Changes will continue to occur as the guidelines are codified. Council will have to take a vote on those specific code amendments, too.

The Planning Commission agreed to sign off on the Design Commission’s decisions on building design standards. Other recommendations from the group included expanding the boundaries of the urban core, which will have more stringent design requirements than the suburban areas of the city.

The boundaries recommended would mean the urban core would extend from Parmer Lane on the north, US 183 on the east, Slaughter Lane on the south and Loop 360 on the west.

The Planning Commission also recommended an incentive-based system to encourage developers to bury on-site power lines. Some, like Commissioner Matt Moore, were hesitant to suggest more requirements without a full study of the cost of such measures.

Dallas Kelley of the Real Estate Council of Austin also addressed the group. She said RECA still has concerns that small and independent businesses will bear an unfair burden of the costs of design standards, as well as developers who must provide the infrastructure for the design standards before leases are signed.

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

Canales staying . . . Deputy City Manager Joe Canales, who had scheduled his retirement for late June, will be staying on indefinitely. That’s good news for City Manager Toby Futrell, who has worried publicly about losing some of her top managers since many are nearing retirement age . . . Today’s Council meeting . . . The Council will consider passage of a code amendment establishing T ransit Oriented Development districts on third reading, and goals for affordable housing within those districts. They will also have more than 20 new zoning cases to consider, although there will be a request to postpone a hearing on the Gables at Westlake. Neighborhoods surrounding St. Stephen’s School have been locked in a fight with the school over changing zoning to allow for development of condos or apartments. The Council is unlikely to deny a request to put off hearing such a contentious case . . . The Murphy tract, at 5029 Southwest Parkway, is likely to spur a fight between environmentalists and the property owner, who is seeking office zoning. The 48-acre tract is in the Barton Creek Watershed and surrounds a smaller property already developed with offices for Silicon Labs. Speculation has is that Silicon Labs is interested in expanding on the Murphy tract. The Zoning and Planning Commission recommended office zoning for the tract with numerous conditions. The SOS Alliance has asked its members to voice their opposition to the zoning change, which would allow for construction of 344,000 square feet of new office buildings . . . The long-awaited hearing on proposed commercial and retail and design standards is set for 6pm . . . A blast from the past . . . Shiva’s Headband will provide musical entertainment in honor of Burton Wilson at 5:30pm . . . Regional Water Quality Plan . . . Public comments regarding the final draft of the Water Quality Protection Plan for the Barton Springs Zone of the Edwards Aquifer are due by Monday. The final draft is available online at www.waterqualityplan.org. . . South MoPac Randall’s leads voting . . . The Randall’s on South MoPac drew 167 voters yesterday, followed by 150 voters at Northcross Mall, 148 voters at UT and 130 at the HEB on South Congress. Randall’s on Research had 122 voters and the 110 voters cast ballots at the Randall’s on Ben White. So far, at the end of the sixth day of early voting, slightly more than 2 percent of Austin’s registered voters have cast ballots on three City Council races and the smoking referendum. After six days of early voting in 2003, only 5,761 voters had cast ballots. However, by the end of early voting in 2003, the total was 22,152 or 4.73 percent of those registered. The total number of votes cast in that election was 59,929 or 15 percent of those registered. . . Information, please . . . During a discussion of landfills last night (see above), members of the Solid Waste Advisory Commission were musing over just what was attracting turkey buzzards to the landfill next to ABIA’s runways, since those facilities did not take household garbage. Commission Member Tracy Sosa said “I think birds tell each other where the food is.” Chair Gerry Acuna—frustrated with a lack of information about a contract proposal—quipped “At least they communicate.”

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