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Crunch time for WTP4 site decision

Friday, August 18, 2006 by

Next week could be crunch time for the Austin Water Utility’s efforts to gain final approval of its plan to build Water Treatment Plant 4 on the 45-acre Cortaña site near Lake Travis. The plan faces two major hurdles: winning approval from the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve (BCP) Coordinating Board and from the Travis County Commissioners Court. Those decisions are scheduled for Monday and Tuesday, respectively.

The Austin City Council must also consider the matter again on Thursday, but that should not be challenging.

Winning approval from Travis County could be the toughest task, as city and county officials don’t always see eye-to-eye over how to jointly manage the BCP lands. And without BCP or county approval, WTP4 could end up right back where it started, on its original site.

"Obviously, Travis County is a key partner in the process," said Acting Assistant City Manager Juan Garza, "I know we have worked very hard to address all the concerns that they brought before us as thoroughly as we could and we haven’t taken anything that they said lightly."

In Fact Daily has obtained a copy of the city’s response to Travis County’s proposal on WTP4. In it, the county requests that the city keep the Green WTP on line until 2008, asks the city to re-evaluate the selection criteria, and lays out environmental concerns about the Cortaña site.

"We have spent resources and time to research every question they have given us." Garza said, adding that the Green plan will be closed on schedule, and that he believes the city’s criteria was fair. Environmental mitigation is still being negotiated. .

AWU proposed moving WTP4 from its original 102-acre site at the headwaters of Bull Creek because the area is considered environmentally fragile, containing several karst and other critical environmental features. It is also the largest habitat for the Jollyville Plateau Salamander, which has been recommended for inclusion in the federal list of endangered species.

But the Cortaña site has its own set of environmental problems. It is part of the city’s BCP land, and the area planned for the water treatment plant contains five nesting pairs of endangered Black-Capped Vireos. The city has outlined plans to mitigate that loss by adding the 928-acre Little Barton Creek tract to the BCP and by creating additional Black-Capped Vireo habitat equal to or larger than the tract that will be lost.

However, several entities involved in the decision making process – including Travis County – are using approval of the Cortaña site as leverage to get the city to take action sooner rather than later to complete the acquisition of land for the BCP. The BCP currently consists of 27,749 mitigated acres out of a target of 30,428 acres.

The BCP Science Advisory Committee gave its conditional support to the Cortaña site with the stipulation that the city "renews its commitment to BCP completion." The city’s Environmental Board, while asking the city to look for other sites, said it could support the Cortaña tract if it were the only option, but listed the same conditions as the BCP SAC. (See In Fact Daily, Aug. 17, 2006.)

Travis County, meanwhile, goes a little further, requesting that the city work with the county to develop and implement a financing plan to complete BCP land acquisition, seeking to use the city’s financial muscle to purchase the final 2,500 acres needed to complete the preserve.

City officials, however, are taking a hard-line stance on linking completion of the BCP to approval of the Cortaña site, threatening to return to the original site despite its environmental problems.

"Even though we seek a water treatment plant, that’s a separate issue from finishing out the preserve, though the two issues have been linked," Garza said. "Yes it (the original site) is still on the table. It is a fully permitted and mitigated site. Of course there are some concerns that have been expressed with it, but it does remain a site."

Council Member Lee Leffingwell said it was his understanding that one or more commissioners had asked that the city use "our bond money for open space, if it’s approved in November, and spend it for BCP—and we can't do that. I don’t think that would even be legal (because) it’s supposed to be for water quality."

Leffingwell added that he would be opposed to such a scheme. "First of all, I don’t think we’d want to do it. Why should we do it? The city has already fulfilled its quota of BCP acreage and we would be using our bond money to fulfill their quota. It’s not fair."

Leffingwell said sometimes there is a conflict between land management techniques, depending on whether it’s for water quality or habitat.

Commissioner Karen Sonleitner and others have requested that the city take another look at a parcel of land known as the Lucas Tract. Its proponents say is it much closer to the inlet on Lake Travis, and is in an area that poses considerably fewer environmental problems that the other sites identified by the city.

Garza said the city has looked at it again, based on Sonleitner’s recommendation.

"Out of respect for her office, we are fully reviewing it," Garza said. "We have had our outside consultant take a look at it. What we found is that the site is actually a little too small. It’s a huge site, about 340 acres, but it’s basically all slope. There’s about 30 acres of developable land and that is too small for our purposes."

In Fact Daily attempted to contact several key members of the Travis County Commissioners Court, but our phone calls and e-mails were not returned.

Council trio proposes audit of public safety agencies

Council Members Mike Martinez, Lee Leffingwell and Brewster McCracken plan to put an item on next week’s City Council agenda requesting city management to commission a study of the budget and practices employed by Austin’s four public safety agencies. That would include police, fire, EMS and the small Public Safety & Emergency Management Department.

The City Auditor’s Office will participate in the audit, which will be done by an independent firm, Leffingwell said. The City Auditor will function as quality control for the audit, he said, noting that the audit of four public safety departments could stretch out over many months.

Martinez said recent news stories about response times and overtime caused the three to decide it would be a good idea to "compare ourselves with the best practices nationwide . . . We need to take a very serious look at our staffing level." Austin has a goal of providing 2.0 police officers per 1,000 residents. "We want to see other cities that are at 2.0 and what their respective response times are." In addition, Martinez said, the Council Members want to find out whether best practices are being used in deciding which calls should be a Priority 1, 2 or 3.

"We may find we are employing the best practices," he said.

Austin Police Association President Mike Sheffield, who met with the three Council members this week, said, "The association is pushing for this." APA PAC has been running television commercials to try to shore up public support for the officers—especially the need for increased staffing—in the wake of negative perceptions that may have been generated by the American-Statesman. See the ad at http://www.austinpolice.com/index.htm Asked what he expected to learn from the audit, Sheffield responded, "I expect to find out the truth—where are we. I'm tired of listening to the Statesman harping," as editorial writers did recently. "Basically (the newspaper is) accusing of us of stealing by having the overtime . . . that the overtime allocation was a way to supplement our contract…They insinuated that we were somehow manipulating or perpetrating a fraud on the city by working all this overtime."

A shortage of officers has led to the need for numerous hours of police overtime. "We didn’t create this crisis; it was created by city management," Sheffield said.

McCracken, who has echoed city management’s theme that public safety budgets are growing too fast and taking up too large a percentage of the city’s revenues, also sees the independent audit as a victory. He said Council members have been working on an agreement to do the audit for several weeks. The audit offers the city and the various unions "a chance to enter the union negotiations in a substantially more harmonious place," McCracken concluded.

As for the Fire Department, firefighters are already meeting or exceeding the response times expected using best practices—even though the department is not complying with acknowledged best practices, Martinez, a former firefighter, said.

"We owe it to the citizens to find out whether we’re doing the right thing with their money," Martinez said. Even though public safety receives the lion’s share of the city budget, it sometimes seems that Austinites would prefer otherwise, he said.

Leffingwell said that there would be a presentation on the matter at Tuesday’s meeting of the Council Audit and Finance Committee.

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

Leffingwell promises new lobby rules . . . Council Member Lee Leffingwell said Thursday that his office would be instituting a new policy for those seeking appointments with the Council Member or his aides. He said his secretary will check her list of registered lobbyists when she makes an appointment to see if the person is registered to lobby on the item to be discussed. She will ask them "what their purpose is and if they're not registered, ask if they intend to go down right now and get registered." Of course, only those who are paid to lobby must register. He added, "I think there’s an interest in knowing" if Council visitors are being paid to discuss various matters. "Frankly, I think we need to revisit our ordinance so we have some kind of controls," so that the rules can be enforced, he said . . . Newly registered . . . Jennifer S. Rodriguez has registered with the City Clerk’s Office as a lobbyist for ACS State and Local Solutions. The company sells photographic traffic enforcement equipment . . . Getting down to basics . . . When it comes to what he believes in, Acting Assistant City Manager Juan Garza is not afraid to tell you what it’s based on. In a presentation to the Environmental Board Wednesday night, in answering a board member’s criticism about the city’s openness, Garza reached in his pocket and pulled out a small book containing a copy of the Declaration of Independence he said he keeps with him always. He quoted from the list of the Colonists’ grievances against King George: He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures. "That’s what guides me when I say I believe in being as open and honest as I can be in my dealings," Garza said. Hard to argue with that . . . Smoking case goes to court . . . Oral arguments were heard Thursday in a federal lawsuit filed by several Austin bar owners against the city over its no-smoking policy in clubs. However, it will be at least three weeks before there will be any ruling in the lawsuit. Judge Sam Sparks gave the city 10 days to submit written arguments. Plaintiff bar owners will then have 14 days to submit their final statements

. . . . Anti-helmet law group to gather Sunday . . . The League of Bicycling Voters will hold a "Bike Helmet Fashion Show and Rally" to fight a proposed mandatory helmet law on Sunday from 5-10pm at Scholz Garten, 1607 San Jacinto. The fashion show will be at 7pm . . . Armadillo reunion … As the Armadillo World Headquarters celebrates its 36th birthday this month and the City installs a plaque at One Texas Center in its honor, the public access community gathers for a reunion and free speech forum. The Armadillo gave birth to public access television in Austin. The Armadillo's Mike Tolleson was on the original ACTV Board in 1973 and the Armadillo's Bill Narum was key to Austin Community Television's launch. Tolleson, Narum, and other early originators of access TV will be heading to the east side Saturday for the Public Access TV Reunion and Free Speech Forum. The Reunion / Forum kicks off this afternoon at Scholz Beer Garten and continues at 10am Saturday morning with an Open House and Stand-up Soapbox at the access studios at 1143 Northwestern Avenue. The public is welcome.

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