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Council wants more time for Green options

Friday, April 28, 2006 by

Staff stresses need to move quickly while Council seeks more information

After being presented with a veritable smorgasbord of options for shoring up the city’s future water needs, City Council members did two things Thursday: voted to pull the Guerrero Park option for a new Green Water Treatment Plant off the table, and decided they needed more time to study the rest of the options.

Austin Water Utility Director Chris Lippe spent more than an hour demonstrating the projected need for water in Austin over the next 25 years and laying out a long list of possible solutions to meet capacity needs by the year 2011, the same options presented to the Environmental Board Wednesday night. (See In Fact Daily, April 27, 2006).

Council members also grilled Lippe and other staff members and consultants on how programs like mandatory conservation, reuse of treated wastewater and recovery of water leakage in the current system might delay the need for a new water treatment plant.

Asked by Council Member Brewster McCracken what might happen if the city fails to provide the necessary amount of water needed by 2011, Lippe painted a bleak picture.

“There would be very serious risks to public health,” Lippe said. “Low water pressure could create a vacuum in the system, drawing water back into it that has already been contaminated. That could introduce bacteria, viruses and diseases into the system. It would also diminish the fire department’s capability to fight fires, a major public safety hazard.”

City staff, including City Manager Toby Futrell, stressed to Council Members that a decision is needed soon in order to meet the 2011 deadline.

“We are out of time,” said Futrell. “We are looking for direction, a sense of what the Council wants to pursue. We need to lock down something. Even with aggressive conservation and reuse, we have an aging system and that will only cut around the margins.”

Engineer Steve Coonan of Alan Plummer Associates, Inc., outlined how the future needs of the water system were determined. Pressed on the subject of how much extra capacity could be squeezed out of the system by aggressive, mandatory conservation measures, he had trouble providing hard numbers.

“We have factored the current level of voluntary conservation into the projections,” he said. “More stringent, mandatory conservation measures could yield a 10 to 15 percent initial savings, but our experience shows that tends to shrink over time.”

Lippe produced a chart showing about a dozen conservation steps that could be taken to save the city some 20 million gallons per day. “Two-thirds of the savings are achieved through a mandatory five-day watering schedule and setting a water budget for large industrial customers,” he said, adding that Plummer Associates will present a more detailed report on water conservation to the Council in the next few weeks.

Council members pursued information on other areas of water savings, such as shoring up leaks in the system. “I understand that there are a lot of water main breaks and leaks,” said Council Member Jennifer Kim. “How much could be saved if we take steps to plug those leaks?”

AWU Assistant Director David Juarez said the industry standard for water system loss was about 15 percent, noting that some other Texas cities have a much higher rate. “Most of that is attributed to inaccurate meters and slow leakage that isn’t detected,” he said. A report that AWU recently filed with state noted that Austin’s leakage rate was about 12 MGD. Juarez estimated that with an aggressive leak detection program, as much a 6 MGD could be recovered.

Add all that together with the city’s projected 11 MGD wastewater reuse program, when fully implemented and Austin could be saving 35 MGD or more if all of the conservation programs were put in place. Still, Lippe warned that putting off planning for a new treatment plant could be dangerous. “We just don’t think the city should rely on that,” he said. “There might not be time to build out the capacity we need if we delay, and we could reach a water crisis.”

Council members dismissed many of the options put before them—expanding current facilities, going to Decker Lake, tapping the Edwards Aquifer—in favor of pursuing a new site for the Green plant.

“We should move to aggressively pursue the two private sites,” said McCracken. “By the time we lock down a site, we could pursue a real investigation into ideas like mandatory conservation and reuse. We need to take the Guerrero Park site off the table and refocus on the remaining sites. But we do need to do what we can through conservation to avoid a new plant, if we can.”

Council Member Betty Dunkerley had concerns about losing any more time studying conservation issues.

“I don’t want to be in position to have a problem with public health a fire safety,” said Dunkerley. “I want to pursue parallel pathways. Let’s get the site (for the plant) and let’s get the conservation data. I want to get information quickly on Water Treatment Plant #4 and other sites so we can make some informed decisions.”

Council Member Lee Leffingwell agreed that the city should move forward. “Nobody doubts the need for a new treatment plant, but with conservation and reuse, we can push back the need to build a new plant, which could save the city an untold amount of money.”

Council members voted 7-0 to pull the Guerrero option off the table, and instructed staff to pursue negotiations on the two private property locations for the water treatment plant.

Council hears bullish forecast on city’s economy

Kim disagrees with projected cost of public safety

Members of the City Council got a rosy financial forecast on Thursday, with both city staff and outside experts painting a picture of a strong economy with no signs of a downturn on the horizon. But that message of optimism was tempered with a caution that the city’s costs were going up just as quickly–and in some cases even more so—than the increases in revenue in sales and property taxes.

For the overall economic picture, the city brought in economist John Hockenyos of Texas Perspectives, who has consulted on several major projects for the city in the past few years.

“It’s very, very positive,” he said of the city’s economic status, “and there’s no sign of any significant change going forward. If anything, things may get slightly better…which is hard to imagine considering how relatively good things are right now.”

He pointed to a strong demand for new homes, solid retail sales figures, and a continued in-migration of new residents to the Austin area as signs that the economy would continue to grow. “Every indicator I look at in the Austin economy is very, very positive. The aggregate measures of our local economy are very, very strong,” he said. “In almost every sector of the economy, the job base is expanding…with the exception of manufacturing. Given some of the economic development announcements, that’s going to change in the near future and manufacturing will start looking positive as well.”

The local economy is so strong that the city’s budget office is revising its projections for sales tax growth, including its projections for the remainder of the current fiscal year. The original forecast called for a 6 percent increase over FY 2004-05, but Budget Officer Greg Canally told the Council that had been changed to 10 percent for the rest of the year. The last five months have shown double-digit increases in sales tax revenue compared to the same period one year ago. The Budget Office is also forecasting a 10 percent increase in sales tax revenue for the upcoming fiscal year, with a gradual slowdown in the rate of growth during subsequent years.

It fell to City Manager Toby Futrell to balance the optimistic report with a warning that those increased revenues, for the most part, won’t mean the city will be swimming in cash. “I want to caution you that we need to be aware of our very large cost drivers, such as the increasing cost of employee health insurance, reinvesting in our work force through pay for performance and annualized market adjustments, the cost of opening new and expanded facilities, and very significant public safety cost increases,” she said. “Public safety continues to be the biggest component of our annual cost drivers. In 2007, public safety costs will rise 23 million dollars, nearly 60 percent of the total expenditure growth, or a projected 77 percent of all our departmental expenditures.”

That jump in public safety costs assumes no significant changes to the contracts for police and firefighters, which will both be up for renewal next year. “It is important to remember that this forecast is built only on two things: our base budget and our policy cost drivers,” Futrell said. “The base budget includes only funding to maintain the service level we are currently providing. And the funding for our cost drivers covers only policy-driven increases, for example, our public safety contract increases or maintaining 2.0 officers for every 1,000 population, or enhanced task-force staffing for the fire department. The forecast does not include funding to cope with the increased demand on our non-civil service resources,” she said, which is occurring due to the city’s population growth and the need to restore services cut during the economic downturn.

Rising costs are not unique to the public safety departments. Budget Officer Greg Canally told the Council that many of the city’s revenue departments are also facing cost increases for fuel and supplies. To help cover those costs, both Austin Energy and the Austin Water Utility may increase rates within the next five years. The financial forecast includes a base rate increase in 2010, while water customers will face a more immediate hike. The financial forecast calls for projected combined rate increase for water/wastewater service totaling 26.3 percent between 2007 and 2011.

Council Member Jennifer Kim expressed doubt over some of the City Manager’s figures. “I am skeptical about the forecast on public safety's percent increase of new general revenue,” she told In Fact Daily. “What assumptions is she making to come up with these annual increases in public safety expenditures?” Kim asked. “If one takes the lowest of the three, 5.2 percent and applies that to all the fiscal years, in FY 2011, the public safety cost will be $28.57 million (not $30.4 million).”

“It shows that in FY 2011 the share grow to 123 percent of new general revenue. I believe a truer assessment is something closer to 85.8 percent, which is 37 percent less than what the city manager presents,” she said.

Notes from the campaign trail

Council defends amendment cost analysis

Council Members on Thursday defended their cost estimates for the Open Government Amendment, criticizing the conclusion in a report by Liveable City that the city could satisfy supporters of the proposal by spending just $3 million to comply with the terms of the amendment. That conclusion, Council Members said, ignored the legal responsibility of the Council to comply with the exact wording of the proposition and not just the intent of the people who drafted it.

The discussion on the dais began in response to comments from Proposition 1 supporter Robert Singleton, who addressed the Council on a proposal sponsored by Council Member Lee Leffingwell to draft an open government ordinance for consideration should the proposed charter amendment be rejected. Singleton, citing the Liveable City report, told the Council that “the $36 million figure, it became clear in court, reflected the cost of putting all e-mail on line in real time, something that is not required by the ordinance.” Singleton said the Liveable City report discredited the city’s earlier cost estimates, saying “you can achieve… they called it ‘most of the goals supporters want’… I contend it’s all of them, because the amendment does not require e-mail to go on line in real time.”

But Leffingwell challenged Singleton’s conclusion, along with the premise of Liveable City that the city should prioritize which parts of the amendment to follow. “Your statement was that they can achieve nearly all of the provisions of the charter amendment at 1/10th the cost,” he said “I’m just having a hard time understanding how we could follow nearly all of them and not all of them.”

Mayor Will Wynn also argued that the cost estimate was based on more than just e-mail. “A fundamental real cost is to identify the person, the content, and the nature of the discussion on-line in real time…so as we get stopped in the parking lot of Whole Foods to talk about some city business…somehow we have to figure out how to identify that person and what the discussion is about on-line in real time,” he said. “The city will be required to instigate and follow the entire amendment, not what current advocates believe to be the most important parts of the proposed charter amendment. We have to follow the letter of the law and comply. And it is very, very, very costly.”

He got some support from City Attorney David Smith, who also disputed the claim that the city could arbitrarily prioritize parts of the amendment while ignoring others. “One of the unique things about a citizen-initiated amendment to the charter is…it is passed or not passed based on every word in it,” he said. “This idea that somehow the city can take action after it passes…to change what is in the citizen-initiated proposal is preposterous.”

Council Member Betty Dunkerley predicted the actual cost of meeting the terms of the amendment would be far beyond the $3 million figure cited by Liveable City. “After looking with detail at what we would have to do, very frankly, I think the implementation costs are going to be higher than $36 million. But at least the $36 million is what our outside experts and our inside experts have come up with, and if this passes that will be the amount that we establish in next year’s budget.”

©2006 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Endorsements . . . The Austin Chronicle unsurprisingly recommended a No vote on both Propositions 1 and 2 after several weeks of acerbic comment on the Open Government and Clean Water amendments. The weekly also endorsed Propositions 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 as well as Mayor Will Wynn and Council Member Brewster McCracken for re-election. Perhaps more importantly to the candidates, the Chronicle endorsed Place 2 candidate Mike Martinez and Place 6 candidate Sheryl Cole . . . Darrell Pierce, who is also vying to take the seat held by Danny Thomas, has won the endorsement of the Circle C Neighborhood Association and the Villager . . . The third candidate in the race, DeWayne Lofton, announced this week that he had won the endorsement of the Mexican American Democrats. Sabino and Lori Renteria are hosting an afternoon get together at 1:30pm Saturday to introduce Lofton to neighbors at 1511 Comal Street, next to Martin Middle School . The event immediately follows the Saltillo Rail Master Plan Community Meeting at Martin which starts at 9am and ends at 1:30pm. For more info, call the Renterias, 478-6770 . . . Rodriguez joins those opposing ROMA plan for Saltillo . . . State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, among others, voiced opposition to the plans drawn up by ROMA for the 11-acre site. He told the Council the community advisory group, of which he is a member, felt that the ROMA plan did not provide for sufficient affordable housing or protect the character of the surrounding neighborhood. Rodriguez and the other members of the advisory group will reiterate their concerns when Capital Metro holds its master plan meeting Saturday . . . New Proposition 1 ad offends Sheffield . . . A full-age ad in this week’s Austin Chronicle calls on voters to approve Proposition 1 “for real police accountability.” It features a partial back view of a police officer whose black gloved hand is on his weapon and the headline, “If an officer abuses rights, don’t you think the public has a right to know?” The ad cites support from groups such as the ACLU Texas, Gray Panthers, and People for Efficient Transportation. But an angry Mike Sheffield, president of the Austin Police Association said of the ad, “This is flat out false. The people that are behind this are cop haters, pure and simple. That’s all it is. Our records are open to the public. You simply have to file an Open Records request and the press does that every day. When police are disciplined, it is open to the public.” Sheffield said. “These people are so buried in their own agenda, their own hatred, and that to me is frustrating. It is the height of stupidity.” Not all disciplinary records are open, however. Under the contract between the city and the APA, if an officer is suspended the record becomes public. That contract will remain in effect until at least 2008 . . . Park named for Treviño . . . John Treviño Jr., the city’s first Hispanic Council member, was feted last night as Council Member Raul Alvarez led an effort to name a park in Treviño’s honor. Speakers included family members, community leaders and friends that included former commissioner Richard Moya and former mayor Gus Garcia. Treviño, who also served as Mayor Pro Tem, did serve an interim term as mayor, and family members called for the city records to reflect his term as the city’s first Hispanic mayor, with Garcia serving as first Hispanic elected mayor. The East Austin park, which will be known as John Treviño Jr. Park at Morrison Ranch, is next to Hornsby Bend Cemetery, where Treviño’s grandmother is buried. Treviño said there was no way to repay the city for such an honor and said his grandmother, who frequently blessed him as a child, would certainly also bless the park . . . SRO housing approved . . . The Council last night approved zoning changes for the six-story Ramada Inn on Ben White Boulevard to be converted into 100 single-occupancy housing units, focused on providing temporary housing for low-income residents. Neighbors in the South Lamar neighborhood were split on the matter, although the neighborhood association did agree to give its blessing. Foundation Communities is still putting together funding for the SRO project. Foundation Communities runs a similar project, Garden Terrace, in a converted nursing home . . . New appointees . . . Council members approved three appointments to boards and committees Thursday. Charles Locklin was appointed to the Downtown Austin Community Court Advisory committee by consensus; Maryam Gharbi was reappointed to the MBE/WBE Advisory Committee by consensus; and Larry Macginnis was appointed to the Urban Forest Board by consensus . . . Political pedal today . . . Political candidates and elected officials will get together at 4:30pm today to play in downtown traffic. Actually, the event is billed as a short ride from City Hall to Tambaleo, 302 Bowie Street. Those who want to walk will be allowed to join the bikers for happy hour beginning at 5:30pm . . . The Austin Cycling Association will hold its candidate forum at 7pm Monday at the LCRA Headquarters (we remember it well if not fondly) . . . Wrecker ordinance postponed . . . Austin tow truck drivers got their wish Thursday night as the Council postponed discussion of a new wrecker ordinance. Representatives of the Austin Towing Association say a proposal to get more companies to participate in the city’s rush-hour rotation program for clearing wrecks from major freeways during rush hour would hurt smaller companies with only a few trucks. Dozens of drivers spent much of the day waiting at City Hall before the Council voted at 10:30pm to postpone the item for three weeks.

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