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Last night, members of the city’s Water and Wastewater Commission got their first look at the Austin Water Utility’s proposed 2005-06 budget, which projects a 5.2 percent system-wide rate increase for each of the next five years.

Thursday, August 4, 2005 by

The $297.9 million budget will fund both continued operations and a variety of improvements and additions to the city’s water and wastewater systems, according to AWU Director Chris Lippe.

“We are planning for major infrastructure investments to enhance capacity, the reliability of utility services and roadway improvements,” he said. “We are also planning for watershed land management initiatives, Austin Clean Water Program initiatives, streamlining the utility development process through the One Stop Shop initiative, and integrating the utility’s work order system through the city’s 311 Call Center.”

Lippe also briefed the commission on two recent developments: the Mayor’s call to move the Green Water Treatment Plant to another location on Town Lake, and the City Manager’s appointment of a special investigator to look into allegations of bid irregularities in the Austin Clean Water Program.

“We were given the opportunity to give information to both the Mayor and city managers last week on the status of both the Green plant and plans for the Travis Water Treatment Plant #4,” he said. “We are in the process of a feasibility study on the Green plant and can find no fatal flaws in his plan to move it sooner rather than later.”

The proposed budget was written on the assumption that WTP #4 would go on-line by 2011, with the improved Green plant available at a later date. Now, Lippe said, it’s likely that the Green plan will be put on track to be open by 2011 with WTP #4 opening later.

“We are currently doing a number of studies on the Travis plant, including an alternative site study and aspects,” he said. “Putting Green first in line will give us more time to work through the environmental and other considerations for the Travis plant, including looking at our conservation practices.”

Lippe said the first his department heard of the allegations surrounding the Austin Clean Water Program was when a story appeared in the media earlier this week.

“The article raises concerns about some of the firms involved in the contract’s management,” he said. “We understand that, in addition to what the city attorney’s office is doing, the City Manager has named an outside investigator to look into the claims. We’ll just have to wait for the results.”

Lippe said that there was also good news from the program, in that the US Environmental Protection Agency has granted the program an extra 18 months to bring the city into compliance with EPA standards.

In reviewing the proposed budget, Lippe said he is asking for a significant number of new positions in the department for the first time in several years. He said that while the utility’s customer base has grown about 35 percent since 1992, AWU staffing levels have remained virtually the same, with a 3 percent increase during the same period. The new staff would be used on programs such as Watershed Land Management, the Austin Clean Water Program, on-site sewage inspections, water protection and industrial waste, and Water Resource Planning.

Rising expenses will cause a “moderate” rate increase for both water and wastewater services next year, Lippe said. After an 11.8 percent increase in fees last year, the City Manager Toby Futrell asked AWU to project its needs out over five years, and schedule rate increases evenly.

“That works out to a 3.6 percent increase for water and a 7 percent increase for wastewater each year,” he said. “That will average out to about 5.2 percent for the next 5 years.”

Lippe said the average water and wastewater bill for Austin will by $49.95 next year. That puts Austin at the top of list for major Texas cities, with El Paso charging $35.38; Dallas, $38.36; Houston, $40.59, and San Antonio, $40.82.

Kyle overcomes growth woes through planning

Three years ago, Kyle was a tiny town faced with big problems. Slapped with a massive fine from the Barton Springs-Edwards Aquifer District for overpumping water and facing a crisis in meeting growing utility needs, Kyle city leaders imposed moratorium after moratorium as the city searched for a solution to the city’s growth woes.

The North Hays County city will go into the new fiscal year in a far better place. At a City Council meeting this week, City Manager Tom Mattis proposed doubling the city’s budget to $19 million, with almost half that total going to new capital projects. None of it will require a tax increase. And the city will spend a full $3 million this year to complete a new City Hall and more than $4 million to build water infrastructure for the area.

In this year’s budget, Mattis has proposed adding another dozen city employees, including an assistant city manager and an official planning officer for the city. The city also has an economic development specialist. A new city hall will open in March. Ambitious tax-increment finance districts have underwritten new freeway overpasses. Millions in new water lines will connect additional water service across Interstate 35. And as Mattis has advertised on the city’s website, Kyle is welcoming new retail, including a proposed H-E-B shopping plaza at the intersection of Interstate 35 and FM 150 with open arms.

City leaders are expected to approve the budget in September, with a first workshop on the budget set for tonight. The only real downside in the numbers, as Mattis reported to Kyle’s council this week, is that the city is proposing a flat $3 per customer charge to pay for the increased costs of surface water contracts with the Guadalupe Blanco River Authority. Surface water supplements the city’s existing BSEAD contract. The city is paying high rates – a total of about $216,000 this year – simply to reserve the right to pump surface water to supply the city’s growing neighborhoods.

This all comes because the Kyle City Council took a number of steps to improve its situation. First, they secured an additional water contract. Then they rewrote development ordinances, reversing a city policy that returned unused development fees to developers. They immediately earmarked that money for new infrastructure, but especially water and wastewater services. Then they created tax-increment finance districts around anticipated growth corridors in order to fund much-needed infrastructure improvements.

The strategy has succeeded so well that the City Council set in motion the possible annexation of almost 1,300 acres on the periphery at this week’s Council meeting. Actually, those acres – most of it open raw land that will be home to future residential development — could be whittled down to far fewer acres after a review by an appointed citizen annexation committee. The pockets of acreage follow most of the major roadways that traverse the northern sector of the city. The city actually abuts Dripping Springs’ ETJ on the west.

The one area that Kyle leaders covet the most for annexation belongs to the City of Austin. Austin’s extra-territorial jurisdiction loops around between Kyle and Buda, picking up the soon-to-be lucrative intersection at FM 150. Austin has promised to cede this land to Buda, although Kyle leaders are spending millions to develop infrastructure through the area.

Downtown groups praise Mayor's plan to close Green Plant

Austin Mayor Will Wynn's

call to close the Green Water Treatment Plant while opening a new plant elsewhere on Town Lake is winning mostly favorable reviews from downtown interest groups. The Downtown Austin Alliance and the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association are both excited about the prospects for additional residential and retail, while supporters of the Austin Public Library are eyeing the site as their choice for a new main library building.

"The Downtown Austin Alliance supports a new library downtown, and if it winds up being on part of the tract the Green Water Treatment Plant is on, we'd be very happy," said Downtown Austin Alliance Board Member John Rosato.

"It's a site that we're very excited about. We think it would be an ideal site for a new Central Library," concurred Tina Dacus, who serves on the board of the Friends of the Austin Public Library. "We also think it would be great for some mixed-use development, perhaps another non-profit, some residential housing, some businesses. It would be a great opportunity to have a synergy of development there. It's such a large property that it would offer a great opportunity for any number of things."

Library supporters have been scouting for a new location downtown for several months, and the Green Water Treatment Plant has been at the top of their list. While money for a new building would likely have to come from a bond package, it's looking more and more likely that GWTP site will be the preferred location. "I personally would prefer to see a portion of the land set aside for a new Central Library," said Wynn. "I see public and private uses, lots of private sector tax base, and new roads to help mobility in a congested part of downtown."

The prospect of new residential and retail downtown is exciting for both the DAA and DANA. "This whole section of downtown…has been under-performing, and it is a real important part of downtown," said Rosato. "By bringing Nueces through to Cesar Chavez and hopefully having 2nd Street going east-west from the retail corridor to Seaholm, it allows the city to complete the transportation grid in this area and bring land back on the tax rolls to produce property taxes and sales taxes." The Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association even passed a resolution in support of the Mayor's proposal earlier this week. "We really support the opening up of more downtown land for appropriate urban development, the extension of the grid street system downtown, and also the opportunity for more downtown residential," said DANA President Andrew Clements.

Discussing the plan on Wednesday, Mayor Wynn stressed that the proposal to build a new water treatment plant downstream would have environmental benefits as well as an economic impact. By continuing to withdraw water from Town Lake, he said, the city would keep environmental regulations in place for that body of water and its tributaries.

A new plant could also boost the city's overall water treatment capacity, which the Mayor said could delay the need for the controversial Austin Water Treatment Plant #4 near Lake Travis. "Having a relocated Green on Town Lake, it shifts the focus away from AWTP #4, and that frankly should allow staff the years it will take to answer a lot of uncertainty and questions about that plant," Wynn said. "I am not suggesting that in the future we don't have another plant, and I certainly understand the value of having an intake facility on Lake Travis…but this would give staff and engineers more time to do an alternative site analysis."

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

A star in our midst . . . When Steve Barney isn’t working for the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department, he spends his spare time as a serious playwright. And starting August 13, Barney heads for the bright lights of the big city to present his one-man play, “ Wade,” to an off-Broadway audience in New York City. If you are heading for the Big Apple soon, “Wade” will be playing daily at the Collective Cabaret at 279 Church Street. Curtain times are: August 13, 9:30pm; August 14, 4pm; August 16, 7pm; August 17, 3pm; August 18, 8:15pm; and August 21, Noon. For more information, go to . . . Today's Council meeting . . . TIF hearing at 10:30am . . . You can generally tell how much interest is anticipated for a public hearing by its timing on the agenda. So, the fact that the hearing for the downtown Tax Increment Finance Reinvestment Zone #15 is set for 10:30am means there's likely to be little interest in the maintenance service agreement for blocks 2, 3, 4 and 21 . . . Budget and tax presentations . . . The Council is expected to set September 12, 13 and 14 as the dates for adopting the new ad valorem tax rate. The city's budget staff will make a presentation at 2pm on its proposals for next year's budget for the community services departments, including Neighborhood Housing and Community Development, the Library Department, the Parks and Recreation Department and Health and Human Services . . . History at 6 . . . Council Member Lee Leffingwell says he favors moving a zoning hearing from its 4pm time to 6pm to allow more of the public to explain why they believe a house in the Pemberton neighborhood should be zoned historic. The owner of the property opposes the rezoning because he wishes to demolish the house to make way for new development. Other than that, the zoning case load looks fairly light. . . With a little prodding from Planned Parenthood, more than 300 Austinites sent emails to the Council to make sure that they would approve an amendment to the Walgreens prescription plan to guarantee that women who what contraceptive medications can receive them from the pharmacy. The Council is expected to approve an expanded contract with Walgreens to offer prescriptions for patients from the hospital district's clinics . . . Slow negotiations . . . Collective bargaining continues between Austin firefighters and the city. Yesterday, the two sides caucused separately at the city’s Learning Resource Center near Austin Bergstrom International Airport. While the firefighters were willing to offer some compromises on association leave, the two sides were still far apart on compensation issues. . . Getting it right . . . T ravis County Commissioner Karen Sonleitner points out that we got some of our figures wrong yesterday in reporting salary proposals for the county's constables. The correct numbers are– Constables 1-4, curent salary, $66,442; with 12.5 percent raise, $74,747.25. For Constable 5, current salary, $69,163; with 12.5 percent raise, $77,808.37. We thank Commissioner Sonletiner for reading us regularly and keeping us honest.

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