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Leffingwell seeks answers to problems at Solid Waste Department

Friday, October 24, 2008 by Austin Monitor

Council Member Lee Leffingwell said Thursday he wants some answers from the Solid Waste Services Department, both on the subject of the Materials Recycling Facility that was stopped in the middle of the design process and on the question of curbside recycling of plastic bags.


Leffingwell was reacting in part to story in Thursday’s In Fact Daily about the Solid Waste Advisory Commission’s desire to have an audit of the department’s management. Leffingwell said the concerns expressed by the commission “merit looking into and I’ve already asked the city manager to try to answer some of these questions.”


The City Council approved a $3.5 million contract in July 2007 for R.W. Beck Corp. to perform design engineering for the facility, which would automatically sort an expanded array of recycling materials to be sold on the open market. The opening of the MRF was originally planned to coincide with the start of single-stream recycling curbside pickups in October of this year.


Beck performed the initial design services and delivered its first installment of work on Feb. 1, 2008. It began work on Phase B in May, but the city cancelled the project on August 28 without immediately notifying the Council, the SWAC or the public.


In Fact Daily asked Assistant City Manager Robert Goode, whose duties include oversight of the SWS Department, whether city management planned to do an audit or assessment of the department as suggested by SWAC Chair Gerard Acuña. Goode responded, “I talked with (City Manager Marc Ott) today. He’s looking at that issue. He’s going to send something out to Mayor and Council, possibly as soon as tomorrow (Friday).”


Specifically, he said the main question city management wants to answer is this: Is the department situated to face upcoming challenges?  In addition to the MRF, the SWS is also the city’s lead agency in implementing a comprehensive Zero Waste plan designed to eliminate landfill waste by 2040.


Asked exactly when the MRF was canceled, Goode said, “During the budget process, that’s when we talked about it the master plan…I think we probably did during the budget process. I just don’t recall the exact wording.”


Leffingwell said the handling of the MRF raises several questions by SWAC members and in his mind, as well.


“They’re concerned about the fact that the MRF design was interrupted, that we’re using the MRF in Dallas–you know the extra carbon footprint that you lay down by driving the trucks up there–and that’s a legitimate question,” he said. “Now, the answer that I’ve been given so far is that they want to do a master plan for solid waste and get a good grip on what goes where. But I think my larger concern is that when these plans are set in motion, especially those that require Council approval and something changes, we ought to be notified about it on a timely basis. And we weren’t.”


Leffingwell said he had only recently learned that the MRF had been discontinued for several weeks. “We had already let the contract and I just found out serendipitously that the contract had been suspended,” he said. ”Now, on the positive side, the city manager said that on the million bucks we’ve already spent, that work that is going to be of value when the project starts up again. We don’t have to start from scratch. Typically, you’re going to lose something but not all of it.”

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