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WMI contract OK'd on 4-3 vote

Friday, October 21, 2005 by

Critics cite environmental problems at Northeast Landfill

A sharply divided City Council narrowly approved two contracts last night to hire Waste Management of Texas Inc. (WMI) to be the trash hauler for the City of Austin’s facilities and to service an expanded portion of the downtown service area in the Warehouse District.

A majority of the Council approved of the Solid Waste Services (SWS) Department’s program to improve trash removal at city-owned buildings and to an expanded portion of downtown that includes several popular restaurants and music venues. However, Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas, and Council Members Lee Leffingwell and Brewster McCracken balked at giving the contracts to WMI, primarily because it plans to dispose of the trash at the city’s problem-plagued Northeast Landfill.

Thomas, Leffingwell and McCracken were on the losing end of a 4-3 vote on the two contracts after a lengthy public hearing in which citizens and environmentalist painted a bleak picture of the conditions at the landfill, which sits at US 290 and Giles Road. The Council voted 7-0 twice on other measures to expand the downtown waste collection zone and to make a $245,000 adjustment to the department’s budget.

“I support the expansion in the downtown area and the use of a single provider for the service,” Thomas said. “What concerns me is the destination of the garbage. There’s been a steady drumbeat of complaints about Waste Management, and they have been fined. I just can’t support a contract that puts more stuff in that landfill.”

Leffingwell noted that the city Solid Waste Advisory Commission has an ad hoc subcommittee that will deliver its preliminary recommendations to Council in two weeks on a regional solution to handling and disposing of solid waste.

“I’m not going to vote for sending any more trash to that landfill until we have a better idea of what the long-term solutions are,” he said.

Other members of the Council seemed to accept staff’s explanation that the contracts had a 30-day out clause that the city could use if it decided to go in a different direction in the future, and felt it was important to go ahead with the contracts.

Council Member Betty Dunkerley, who is working with the SWAC subcommittee, asked city staff to notify the Council 60 days before the end of each of the five one-year contracts being assigned to WMI so it can be reviewed.

“I want to put all of the landfill operators on notice,” she said. “We hope to see our solid waste materials significantly reduced in the future. We will be using single stream recycling, recycling more building materials and taking other steps to drastically cut our waste stream.”

Earlier in the public hearing there was criticism of WMI’s handling of the Northeast Landfill, and major concerns expressed over the contents of its industrial waste unit. Dennis Hobbs, who manages Texas Disposal Systems—a WMI competitor—said EPA studies show that there could be as many as 21,000 barrels of toxic waste buried in the landfill. He quoted a city-ordered 2001 study by consultants Carter and Burgess which concluded that the landfill “posed substantial risk to both the users and owners.”

“In 1998, there was a petition presented to the EPA to make this landfill a Superfund site (thus eligible for federal funds for clean-up of toxic waste),” he said. “But the EPA never took action on the request.”

Robin Schneider, with Texas Campaign for the Environment, urged Council members to look at more than just the lowest bid.

“This company (WMI) is known as a bad actor,” she said, noting that it received the largest fine in Texas history for problems at this landfill. ”We have to be aware of the pattern of problems.”

Home Depot day labor dispute lands at City Hall

Council unwilling to intervene with store management

Dozens of day laborers packed Council Chambers on Thursday to ask the City Council to intervene in an ongoing dispute with Home Depot. They would like to use property at the company’s home improvement store at I-35 and St. Johns as an informal day labor pickup site, but the store’s corporate headquarters had instructed local management to keep the workers off of the property

For a time, company officials allowed workers to solicit jobs from contractors on store property. But earlier this year, that policy was changed. The workers are still seeking access to the many contractors that visit the Home Depot store, and since they are being kept off the property, they are spilling out into the street and nearby businesses.

“We would really like a safe place to meet and a dignified place to meet so we can all look for work peacefully,” said laborer Marvin Rodriguez. The delegation of workers presented the Council with more than 150 letters from people in the St. Johns neighborhood in support of creating a day labor site at the Home Depot.

Labor organizers from the Equal Justice Center and a minister at the Memorial United Methodist Church joined the workers. “Austin has graced Home Depot with tax subsidies that have encouraged Home Depot to become a major contributor to the economic well being of Austin,” said Rev. Cindy Layton. “I am asking the City Council to call upon Home Depot to be even more responsible corporate citizens of the community it serves and deal positively with the needs of the day laborers.”

Council Members listened sympathetically as several laborers used the Citizens Communications portion of the Council meeting to relay their concerns. But they did not make any promises to put public pressure on the company to change its policy.

“When this first started out, there were some activities that were not favorable to the community,” said Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas, referring to some complaints by residents and nearby business owners about the conduct of a few of the workers. “I know APD had to deal with those issues.” He said that while the workers may have gathered signatures from more than 150 St. Johns residents, the good of the entire neighborhood must be considered. “I think that we have to look at this and see how we can be fair on both sides.”

The city’s official stance, determined after months of discussions and negotiations with all parties earlier this year, is to encourage both the laborers and contractors to use the nearby First Workers day labor site at 51st and I-35. That’s approximately one mile away from the Home Depot.

“From the staff’s perspective, we would probably not be recommending a second site in such close proximity to the existing site, but rather something much farther south and perhaps east to gain accessibility on a city-wide basis,” said Health Department Director David Lurie. “Over time, from the staff’s perspective, we think we should be looking at expanded capacity for organized day labor programs, but it’s very important that we look at this issue on a city-wide basis.”

Outside City Hall, several of the workers criticized the First Workers site. “The requirements that they are putting on the day laborers in that area are so stringent that many of them are not finding work in that area,” said one man. And Emily Timm with the Equal Justice Center said even improving the situation at First Workers would not be sufficient. “Even if First Workers were running perfectly, it’s still not a solution to the Home Depot crisis, because there’s already a capacity of people getting jobs there. So if a hundred more workers come, that’s a hundred more workers that don’t get jobs,” she said.

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

Council looks at Barker for Hospital District board . . . The Austin City Council seems likely to recommend that Bobbie Barker of Texas Gas Service take the Travis County Hospital District seat being vacated by Manager Victoria Hsu. Barker, a former chair of the Downtown Austin Alliance, was on many people’s short list of board candidates when board appointments came up in 2004. The Council could make the appointment at next week’s meeting . . . Leffingwell press conference today . . . Council Member Lee Leffingwell says he will be announcing a major environmental initiative at 1:30pm today at Barton Springs Pool. Members of the city’s Watershed Protection and Development Review staff will join the former chair of the Environmental Board for this announcement . . . Appointments . . . The Council appointed Mien Tran to the Child Care Council and reappointed Rev. Kristoffer Lands and Blanca Zamora Garcia to the Travis County Appraisal District Board of Directors. Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas reappointed Pamela Cunningham to the Arts Commission. Dr. Exalton Delco and Martha Martinez were reappointed by consensus to the MHMR Board of Trustees. . . Himmelblau honored. . . The City Council on Thursday honored former Council Member Betty Himmelblau for more than 30 years of public service. Himmelblau served on the Council from 1975 to 1981, and has served in numerous other capacities over the past three decades. . . Public order ordinance . . . City staff unveiled the specifics of several recommended changes to the city’s Public Order ordinance Thursday. Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza said the city polled several major cities in the US and Texas to get a feel for what has worked and what has been held up by the courts. Major changes would include expanding the area where solicitations are not allowed and banning it between 7pm and 7am; prohibit sleeping or sitting on sidewalks in the downtown area; eliminate all roadside solicitations city-wide; and prohibit all door-to-door solicitations between 7pm and 9am. There will be public hearings on the proposed changed on October 27 and November 17, with Council action scheduled for mid-December . . . Oops . . . The City of Round Rock has not approved money for the toll road study as we mistakenly reported yesterday. According to Round Rock spokesperson Will Hampton, the soonest that might be approved is next Thursday . . . Mayor tries Capitol on for size . . . Mayor Will Wynn will be among several elected officials to address students attending a student legislative session at the Capitol today. Students from North and South Texas will meet and debate important issues that affect all parts of the state. Mayor Wynn, Assistant Secretary of State Buddy Garcia and other state officials will talk about the legislative process and leadership starting at 9 a.m. . . . Air quality grants workshop . . . The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) will hold a workshop for those interested in grants to improve air quality in the Austin Early Action Compact area. The area includes Travis, Williamson, Hays, Caldwell and Bastrop counties. For more information about the emissions reduction program, visit water and or call 1-800-919-TERP . . . Celebration of the life of Walter Brown . . . Former Wimberley Alderman Walter Brown, who also served on the Austin Planning Commission for eight years, died on October 7. His friends are invited to join a celebration of his life at 10am Saturday at Blue Hole in Wimberley. Blue Hole Road is off of Old Kyle Road, which can be accessed from RR 12. There will also be signs to show the way to Blue Hole . . . Quorum Report first with the word . . . Harvey Kronberg’s Quorum Report posted a brief note at 7:02am Thursday noting that Travis County Republican Rep. Todd Baxter was expected to resign “in the near future.” Three hours later, the same publication posted Baxter’s notice that he would resign effective November 1. That resignation would give Gov. Rick Perry the opportunity to call a special election before the first of the year so that some Republican—perhaps Ben Bentzin—can run with a clean slate against the three Democrats who have lined up to throw bricks at Baxter. Andy Brown had already sent out a glossy flyer with the headline Brown vs. Baxter, subtitled, “A progressive Democratic challenges the Tom DeLay Machine.” Baxter’s statement says he wants to pursue professional opportunities and spend more time with his family, which is growing. He could not be reached for comment on what good job has been offered but it seems likely he will be moving up in the world, at least financially. The rumor that Baxter would be going to work for a local development company seems illogical, however.

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