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Meeker, Leffingwell spar over water conservation

Tuesday, April 15, 2008 by Austin Monitor

Candidates for Place 1 on the Austin City Council squared off recently over the need for Water Treatment Plant 4. Incumbent Lee Leffingwell and challenger Jason Meeker both addressed the city’s water conservation efforts during a forum held at Scholz’s by Democracy for Austin.


Meeker argued that the city’s conservation program was insufficient. While he said that the measures championed by Leffingwell through the Water Conservation Task Force would save “several million gallons of water” and was “fantastic”, he also pointed out that  “San Antonio, El Paso, cities like that use 140 gallons per person per capita per day,” compared to 180 gallons per person in Austin.


“Lee’s program only decreases our water usage by one percent per year per capita. That’s not good enough, especially if city staff is pushing back on Lee’s program and wanting to reduce that to half of that one percent,” Meeker said. “And also, we’re about to face building a water treatment plant very shortly…which is going to cost $500 million.” Additional conservation, Meeker said, “will put off a half-billion dollar decision and meet our water needs far into the future.”


However, Leffingwell said that comparing Austin’s per capita water usage to that of San Antonio was not an accurate measure of the success of the city’s conservation program.


“Nobody knows how much water San Antonio uses. That city and that area is riddled with wells, and none of those wells actually count in the consumption figure the present to the state for comparison,” he said. “Our program is ongoing, it’s an award-winning program…and we do plan to expand it going forward.”


When asked about the city’s budget, Leffingwell used the opportunity to counter information he had heard presented about the impact that WTP4 would have. “I’ve heard it mentioned recently by one of my opponents that we could balance the budget by not building Water Treatment Plant 4. Well, WTP4 doesn’t come out of the budget,” Leffingwell said. “That’s financed by revenue bonds out of the water utility. It has absolutely no impact on the general budget.”


The planned new animal shelter, he said, had a similar lack of impact on the General Fund. “That’s funded out of general obligation voter-approved bonds,” he said. “We’ve got to address the budget problems line by line when we consider that in September.”


Meeker, who had mentioned the construction of the animal shelter in his opening remarks, offered his own financial analysis. “I heard what he said just a minute ago about how I’m completely misguided in thinking spending money means money comes out of your pocket,” he said. “I guess I’m wrong about that. I kind of thought that, whenever the city spends money, it comes from some place. Somebody’s going to have to teach me different, I guess.”


In reality, the water treatment plant will be built with money from bonds. Water and wastewater customers will pay back the bondholders. So the plant should not have any impact on the city’s General Fund, which receives money from property taxes, sales taxes and transfers from the enterprise funds, including the utilities.


In Place 4, the candidates used the forum to outline their priorities for affordable housing and their visions for managing Austin’s growth. Robin Cravey told the crowd the city needed to take steps to preserve affordability downtown. “When I was coming here as a UT student in the early 70’s, I lived about three blocks from here in a little duplex,” he said. “That neighborhood was eliminated in the name of urban renewal. That whole neighborhood was swept away, and with that neighborhood and with a lot of changes in Austin we lost affordability in this town.”


Candidate Cid Galindo debuted a metaphor for Austin’s challenges in dealing with growth, parts of which have since been worked into his presentation at other forums. “Think about Austin as a big ship, and we’re steaming full ahead…and it turns out this ship is growing,” he said. “As ships get bigger and bigger, they get harder to turn.” The problems facing the city, he said, are “a giant series of three cliffs…a lack of affordability, degradation of our water quality, and all the traffic congestion that we experience.” He urged the crowd to vote for the candidate with the experience to “turn that ship, so that we don’t crash into those major issues that we’re faced with.”

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