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City moves forward with WTP4 contract

Friday, July 28, 2006 by

BCP amendment proposal postponed

Carollo Engineers received approval from the Austin City Council on Thursday to proceed with the preliminary assessment work for the new proposed site for Water Treatment Plant #4.

The Council approved a contract amendment with Carollo not to exceed $10 million for preparation work related to building a new treatment plant on the Cortaña Tract near the intersection of RM 620 and RR 2222 instead of the original proposed location near River Place Boulevard. The Council had previously decided to find an alternate location because of concerns about the environmental impact of building a new water treatment plant at the River Place location (see In Fact Daily, June 23, 2006, July 27, 2006. ).

"In order to move forward with what the Council has already directed us to do, we need this contract to get that work done," said City Manager Toby Futrell. Public Works Director Sondra Creighton explained that if for some reason the Cortaña Tract should not prove to be suitable for a new water treatment plant, most of the work done by Carollo would still be applicable to a new site, so the city was not at risk of a substantial financial loss.

Some local environmentalists still have concerns about the new site, which contains habitat for the black capped vireo. Construction on that site would mean the loss of some of that habitat, said Wildland Conservation Staff Division Manager Willy Conrad. "In the long term, there is going to be destruction of up to 45 acres of the 70 acre site that we have there now," he said. "To be perfectly honest, our staff is split on what the potential impact of that may be. There’s one side of our staff that feels like that…we’ve got a colony there with five nesting pairs of black capped vireo right now. They feel like that entire colony may be lost. However the other side of our staff feels that up to three of those pairs may move on to adjoining areas that are not disturbed, or additional habitation that we already have restored."

In response to questioning from Council Member Mike Martinez, Conrad explained that the taking of the habitat was allowed under the city’s agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and that takings of small amounts of habitat had been anticipated. The city does have a mitigation program to create new habitat in such cases. The goal is to get birds living on the area targeted for construction to relocate to the newly-created habitat. "I wish it were easy to answer you directly and say ‘We know what will happen with these birds’…my advice has always been…Expect the worst and hope for the best with these five nesting pairs we’re dealing with," said Conrad.

The request for a minor amendment to the city’s permit from USFW was on Thursday’s agenda, but was postponed for two weeks. Council Member Mike Martinez also wanted a delay on the Carollo contract amendment but was out-voted. Council Member Jennifer Kim also had reservations about approving funds for preliminary work on the Cortaña Tract. "There doesn’t seem to be that much clustered habitat for the black capped vireo in Texas," she said. "We do have people who come to Texas to look at birds. It’s a very robust industry, the birding industry…with tourism and travel tied to our economy here. So that’s why it’s very important that we do this right and that we not cut corners…not just for our economy but as stewards of our environment."

Kim also questioned the extent of the previous work done by Carollo related to the original River Place site and how much information about that work had been made public. "I don’t’ believe this is the right direction we need to be going in," she said of the Cortaña Tract. Kim favored building the new Green Water Treatment Plant rather than moving forward with WTP 4 when the matter came up for a vote last month.

The vote to amend Carollo’s contract was 5-1-1, with Martinez opposed and Kim abstaining.

Hutto citizens ask more landfill questions

County responsible for WMI site permit

Hutto-area residents got one final chance last night to ask questions about Williamson County’s permit application to expand its landfill on the outskirts of the rapidly growing suburb.

Officials with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), Williamson County commissioners, and Waste Management Inc. met with residents and area environmental groups in a public meeting to take comments and questions before the process goes to the full commission.

The permit application, which if approved would allow the landfill to grow up to three times its current size and height, has created a storm of controversy in the Hutto area. A group of residents, dubbed the "Mount Hutto Concerned Citizens," has filed a challenge to the expansion permit, saying it will have a negative effect on their quality of life.

Many residents of the area, which has seen explosive growth in the past eight years, were surprised to find that such a large landfill was being planned near their new homes. Hutto has grown from 1,250 in the 2000 Census, to a recent estimate of more than 12,000 people.

After TCEQ and county officials gave those attending background on the history of the landfill, the question and answer period began on a humorous note. Hutto resident Stacy Guidry, dressed in full mountain-climbing regalia, stepped up the microphone and asked "How soon will Mount Trashmore go up? I want to climb it!."

The gathered officials were clearly not amused, but Commissioner Frankie Limmer did take the opportunity to note that reports that the landfill could be built as high as 700 feet were erroneous.

"The permit is to build the landfill up to 140 feet above ground level," he said. "The 700 foot figure is a calculation of height above sea level."

Other, more serious questions followed, including one by Hutto resident Roberta Arnett that seems to stump the panel for a minute.

"Who is ultimately responsible for the landfill permit, the county or Waste Management?" she asked. When told the county was the party responsible for all matters pertaining to the landfill permit, she pointed to a large stack of folders in front of TCEQ staff members and asked "Then why is the Waste Management logo on all of the application paperwork?"

Commissioner Limmer finally answered. "Because they (WMI) did all of the paperwork," he said. Todd Gallega, a TCEQ attorney added "Waste Management prepared the application, but the county is the permitee."

Following Thursday’s question and answer session, which was technically informal, there was an on-the-record comment session in which many of the same questions asked to officials earlier were officially put into the record for the agency to provide a written answer. Thursday’s meeting was the end of the comment period on the permit.

The next step in the process is likely to a request by Williamson County officials for a "direct referral" of the case to the full TCEQ commission for contested case hearing, bypassing a review and possible decision by the executive director. The move speeds up the process while giving all parties a chance to plead their case before the commission in a public hearing.

TCEQ staff said that hearing process normally takes between six months and two years.

Futrell proposes $2.3 billion budget

McCracken wants to compare public safety costs with other cities

City Manager Toby Futrell presented a first draft of the 2007 City Budget to Council Members Thursday, telling them that while you can’t always get what you want, you can budget for what you need.

Counting on a continuing rebound in the local economy, Futrell presented a proposed $2.3 billion balanced budget based on financial priorities set forth by the Council earlier this year. That budget contains an effective tax rate of 39.85 cents per $100 valuation, a four-cent cut from last year. That would mean that a $200,000 home would have a tax bill of $797.

"Austin is transforming from several years of economic downturn into a period of growth," she said. "We need to be cautious on how we rebuild and how we respond to growth. This is a meat-and-potatoes budget based on what we need, and not necessarily what we want."

Futrell emphasized that the 2007 budget continues to rebuild city services that were cut during the downturn during the early part of the decade. The proposed budget would add personnel to a number of areas, including public safety, building inspection, code enforcement, zoning and planning review, health, libraries and parks.

Once again, public safety takes the biggest bite out of the $525 million General Fund, constituting 65.8 percent of the pie. Parks and libraries take 10 percent, health programs take 5.9 percent; neighborhood planning and watershed protection takes 3.6 percent and courts take 1.9 percent. Transfers and other expenditures account for 12.8 percent.

Futrell said when the certified tax rolls are added in, the city realized another $935,000 in revenue, which she proposes to spend on funding EMS needs.

Many of the city’s budget priorities are driven by the results on an Annual Citizen Survey, which also rates taxpayer’s satisfaction with city programs and services. According to Futrell, there were no major surprises in this year’s results.

Survey results indicate the Austin’s top issues are: road condition and new roads; growth management, cost of living, tax issues and mass transit. In terms of importance, respondents ranked city services: police; EMS; fire; environmental protection and affordable housing.

Most city departments saw a modest gain in "customer satisfaction" based on the survey. fire protection ( 3.57 increased to 3.59), EMS (3.50/3.53) and police response (2.91/2.95) all increased, while parks and recreation (3.16/3.10), conservation programs (3.04/3.02) and preservation of green space (2.91/2.86) saw a drop in approval ratings.

The largest increase in the ratings came in Road Maintenance (2.08/2.23).

Major areas where this 2007 budget makes "strategic adds" to department include:

• Emergency Medical Services, including the addition of a peak services unit and money for recruiting incentives;

• The addition of a third magistrate shift to allow 24-hour processing at Central Booking;

• Extra staff to speed up building inspection requests;

• Five positions in Zoning and Planning Review to keep up with demand;

• Extra staffing for the Public Library System; and

• Extra Parks staff to bolster maintenance at recreation centers and the Zilker Botanical Gardens.

Two members of Council considered the hot-button topic of public safety pay – almost half of the city’s annual budget – to be important enough to warrant either further discussion or even an outside audit of just what it takes to keep Austin safe.

The city’s heavy commitment to public safety expenditures came under fire from some groups, and the Austin Neighborhoods Council in particular, during the most recent Council election. As Council Member Brewster McCracken learned during the ANC’s candidate forum, neighborhood groups would prefer to see more money devoted to efforts such as neighborhood planning and less to maintaining police coverage.

Council Member Jennifer Kim raised the topic during City Manager Toby Futrell’s budget presentation Thursday, nothing that she would like to see a fuller discussion of the police department’s budget and its cost drivers. Council Member Mike Martinez, a former firefighter, also questioned how the city could contain police overtime into the next year, which has exceeded budget costs by almost $2 million.

McCracken jumped on the chance to discuss public safety funds, noting that Kim had a "very good idea" when it came down to a possible analysis of how dollars were spent.

"What can we afford? What do we hope to get?" McCracken said. "Hopefully we’ll be following up on this idea and bring forward an independent analysis."

Kim said she simply hoped for a discussion. McCracken went further, saying he would like to see how the budget was put together – and how effectively those dollars were achieving the city’s goals – to have an idea of how well the money was being spent.

Three public hearings have been set for August. The schedule includes Public Services on August 10, Public Safety on August 24, and Utilities, Infrastructure and Growth Management on August 31.

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

ZAP changes . . . When Council Member Jennifer Kim decided to appoint a new member of the Zoning and Platting Commission, instead of longtime Chair Betty Baker, Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley decided to appoint Baker. That left Melissa Hawthorne without a sponsor. On Thursday, Kim appointed James Shieh and Dunkerley appointed Baker, while Council Member Lee Leffingwell reappointed Clarke Hammond. According to his resume, Shieh has a Bachelor of Architecture degree from UT Austin and is a partner in Shieh Properties as well as Volumes Studio. He is a co-founder of the Austin Society of Asian Americans Professionals and lives in Central Austin . . . Sheryl Cole replaced Planning Commissioner Keith L. Jackson with Saundra Kirk. She is the daughter of well-known Democratic activist Willie Mae Kirk. (The other Keith Jackson is still a member of the ZAP) Mandy Dealey was reappointed by consensus. . . Venhuizen out . . . Christine Herbert will join the Resource Management Commission as Council Member Kim’s appointee. She is taking the seat previously held by David Vanhuizen, a strong proponent of water conservation . . . Environmental Board . . . Leffingwell reappointed Karin Ascot to the Environmental Board . . . Self-promotion . . . The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority is promoting toll roads via TV ads. If you’ve missed the cartoons, check them out at http://www.getuptospeed.org. Your toll road dollars at work, in advance. . . . Strama re-election announcement . . . State Rep. Mark Strama will kick off his re-election campaign at Hanover’s Draught Haus, 108 E. Main St., Pflugerville, on Saturday from 5-7pm. The campaign promises music, barbecue, and fun activities for the kids .

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