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Council votes to enhance cash flow for low flow toilets

Friday, November 20, 2009 by Josh Rosenblatt

Yesterday – coincidentally on World Toilet Day – the Council unanimously approved an amendment to the Austin Water Utility FY 2010 operating budget for water-conservation enhancements.  


Under the original amendment proposal, $4 million from the utility’s Operating Fund Ending Balance (which was higher than expected as the result of additional total revenue and Operations and Maintenance savings) would be allocated to three different areas in the Water Conservation Division’s budget:


  • $3 million for rebate programs, particularly the free single-family Toilet Replacement Program and the multi-family/commercial Toilet Rebate Program

  • $500,000 for marketing and outreach, including the addition of three full-time equivalent positions (FTEs)

  • $500,000 for recommendations from the Citizens Water Conservation Implementation Task Force (CWCITF).


However, like the Water Conservation Task Force and the Resource Management Commission (both of which voted earlier this week not to support the amendment), the Council had reservations about the plan and voted to hold the $1 million slated for marketing and CWCITF in reserve until the AWU could present more information about the need for such allocation.


Council Member Randi Shade made the motion to approve the amendment while expressing concern that AWU hadn’t made it sufficiently clear why more money was needed for conservation public outreach, especially the addition of the three new FTEs.


Both Shade and Spelman told AWU Director Greg Meszaros that they wanted to see more transparency in the AWU budget in terms of its cost-benefit analysis. They asked that AWU present a line-item budget that more clearly defines the relationship between money spent and water saved. Or, as Spelman put it, “We want to make sure we’re getting the most bang for our buck.” 


“From now on,” Mayor Lee Leffingwell told Meszaros, “It’s a direction from Council that anything you bring forward should have numbers, both concerning how many millions of gallons of water are being saved and the cost to the city.”


Council Member Laura Morrison went one step further, proposing a friendly amendment to the proposal that would have placed an additional $1 million from the rebate programs in reserve, in case, she said, “we want to shift gears after evaluation.”


But after Leffingwell expressed his concern over limiting the budget for rebates, considering how popular the toilet-rebate program is and how many commitments the city has made to future participants, Morrison withdrew her amendment.


Currently the amount budgeted for the Water Conservation Appliance Efficiency Program (which includes the single-family free-toilet and commercial/multi-family toilet rebate programs) in FY 2010 is approximately $2.3 million. According to Meszaros, AWU has $1.95 million pending in toilet retrofit rebate applications and $935,000 pending in application for free toilets. Add to this a projected $1.9 million in projected spending on free and rebated toilets over the next year, Meszaros said, and the $3 million in requested funds is needed to meet demand.


Since so much of the budget amendment request was based on these pending applications, Leffingwell said he believed that fully funding the rebate programs was necessary in order for the city to keep its word. “We’ve made commitments,” he said.


The toilet rebate program has grown increasingly popular over the years. In 2007, he said, approximately 3000 toilets were distributed free by the city and 712 more were purchased at rebate. This past year, those numbers rose to about 12,000 and 7000, respectively. Add all the AWU rebate programs together, Meszaros said, and the result is 211 millions gallons of water saved this past year alone.

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