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Council delays selection of firm to develop waste plan

Friday, June 12, 2009 by Charles Boisseau

The Austin City Council postponed a vote Thursday on whether to approve a professional services contract designed to guide how the city manages its waste and recycling operations for at least the next generation.


The contract is seen as a key part of the city’s “green” initiatives, and follows City Council’s adoption in January of a Zero Waste Strategic Plan with a goal of reducing by 90 percent the city’s solid waste through recycling, consumer education and innovative practices by 2040.


The Council delayed until June 18 action on the Integrated Solid Waste Management Master Plan, which would be used as a business planning document to guide the city as it implements a new generation solid waste operation envisioned to serve Austin’s growing population.


Staff with the Solid Waste Services Department had recommended awarding the contract to the Omaha, Neb.-based engineering consulting firm, HDR Engineering, for an amount not more than $1.5 million.


Council Member Laura Morrison recommended the week delay about 16 hours after the Solid Waste Advisory Commission failed to come to a consensus over whether to endorse the staff’s recommendation Wednesday night. Several members of the advisory group objected to the process for how HDR was selected, complaining there was little or no input from the commission and the public. This was the second postponement on the contract; on May 21, Council also postponed consideration.


Morrison said she wanted time to privately talk with members of SWAC, a group of volunteers appointed by Council members to advise SWS.


On Wednesday, SWAC members had a lively discussion about the proposed master plan contract before failing to approve language to amend its scope and include public input. Commissioners were advised that any modification to the proposed professional services agreement might make it void, cause a potential legal liability for the city, and further delay the process by months.


“We run a substantial risk to fundamentally change the scope of work,” Mike Trimble, director of the city’s Contract and Land Management Department, told commissioners.


Commissioner Rick Cofer said: “Is the medicine worse than the disease?” as he unsuccessfully proposed amending the language to a resolution to allow for more input and limit the funding to $1.2 million for just the first phase of work on the plan.


Specifically, Cofer and Commissioner J.D. Porter objected to the city’s using a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) process for obtaining the professional services bids, which limited the city’s ability to rate the three firms based on cost at a time the city is facing a steep budget shortfall.

They discussed the merits of using a Invitation for Bids (IFB) process that would have allowed a different ranking formula.


Trimble said the RFQ process was used because the contract requires an unspecified amount of services of a professional engineering firm, requiring the RFQ process under state law.


In the end, only Cofer, Commissioner Tracy Sosa and Commission Chair Gerry Acuña voted in favor of the resolution, meaning it failed to gain a majority of the six-member panel. Porter voted against it after offering the second.  Jason Pittman recused himself because of a potential conflict of interest. Pittman works for the engineering firm URS Corp., one of the bidders for the contract. The sixth member of the commission, Maydelle Fason, was absent. 


Wednesday’s meeting was the commission’s first gathering since the recent shakeup in the top management of SWS. In late May, Willie Rhodes, longtime director of the department, was reassigned by City Manager Marc Ott to lead a newly formed Code Compliance section.


Assistant Director Tammie Williamson now is Acting Director while the city does a national search for a new director.


Williamson and other SWS staff outlined the department’s proposed fiscal 2010 budget of $66 million, which includes increasing the base rate for residential garbage collection 4 percent to $9.10 a month and increasing some other fees. The department would keep a lid on costs partly by leaving unfilled 10 currently vacant positions, which staff advised could increase overtime expenses and injuries among its 398-employee work force.


Commissioners didn’t like that prospect. Acuña expressed concern about leaving positions vacant if it would potentially increase injuries and slow the department in implementing new initiatives. Commissioners agreed to a special work session – slated for 2pm on June 23 — to discuss with staff whether to increase proposed fees even more, perhaps to 6 percent to 7 percent. City Council would have to approve any new rates before they could take effect.

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