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RMC fails to support Austin Water Utility’s $4 million budget amendment

Thursday, November 19, 2009 by Josh Rosenblatt

Following a few testy exchanges between members of the Resource Management Commission and representatives of the Austin Water Utility, the advisory panel voted Tuesday night not to recommend a $4 million budget amendment to the utility’s water conservation program.


Member of the commission generally supported the utility’s conservation efforts, but they were skeptical of the proposed amendment which would increase the city’s low-flow toilet rebate plan and spend additional funds promoting the program. Their decision came two days after the amendment failed to win the support of the Water Conservation Task Force.


The staff hopes to amend the utility’s operating budget for FY2009-10 by taking $4 million from its Operating Fund Ending Balance and using it to pay for programs and services now.


Under the plan, $3.5 million would be transferred to the utility’s Conservation Rebates and Incentives Fund (with $3 million going to additional rebate expenditure and $500,000 for recommendations that may be made by the Citizens Water Conservation Task Force), and $500,000 would go toward marketing expenditures, including the addition of three full-time-equivalent positions (FTEs). AWU Acting Water Conservation Division Manager Drema Gross told the commission these expenditures would help “further education and outreach for water-conservation programs.”


Commissioners questioned Gross and Daryl Slusher, AWU’s assistant director for environmental affairs and conservation, on the need for three new full-time employees and the benefits of spending an additional $3 million on the city’s free Residential Toilet Replacement Program and other rebate services when the commission had already recommended authorizing more than $2 million for a two-year extension of the free toilet program.


“I’m still looking for the plan that goes with this budget,” said Commission Chair Chris Herbert, “and how these costs are allocated and how the staff is allocated.


“I would love to give you the four million dollars and say, ‘We want this to go to conservation if you will promise us to come back with an actual plan before you spend it.’ Because we don’t know where that money’s going to go, if we authorize that into your division and you just hire more staff and we don’t see any results, I don’t feel like we’re doing our job in oversight.”


Slusher was adamant that the needs of the rebate programs justified the budget amendment. “The bulk of this transferred money will go to the rebate budget,” he told the commission, “and we have a lot of demand for that. We don’t want to cut these rebate programs back at this time when we’re being asked to save more water.”


When Herbert asked if it would be possible to delay a decision on recommendation for a month so the Austin Water Utility could come back with more information justifying the need for increased funds for the rebate programs and for the marketing of water-conservation initiatives, Slusher told her that because the programs are so popular, the $2.3 million allocated to them would likely be spent down early next year, so quick action was necessary.


Commissioner Sean Kelly seemed less concerned with the cost of the rebate programs than with the question of the FTEs. Looking at the utility’s proposal, he said, “I’m not comfortable funding three FTEs until I see what they’re going to do.” Kelly then put forth a motion to recommend approval of the $3 million for rebate programs and $500,000 for the Water Conservation Task Force project reserve but to put a hold on the $500,000 for the FTEs because, as he said, “the rebate money is time-critical, but the FTEs aren’t.”


But Kelly’s motion failed to get a second and the commission took no action on the recommendation.


On Wednesday, a member of the Water Conservation Task Force moved to explain that group’s failure to reach a consensus on the budget amendment. Jennifer Walker, who chaired the meeting, wrote to Council Member Randi Shade:


“There was a motion to recommend approval of the budget amendment but in the end there were 2 votes for the motion, 1 vote against the motion and 4 abstentions. We accounted for two of the abstaining votes and would like to briefly explain our rationale. First, we feel the conservation program is very important and we fully support it. In fact, we support the budget augmentation in general.  However, in our opinion, there were a couple of obstacles to approval Monday: a) uncertainties on our part about which conservation measures warrant the additional funds and whether we were qualified to judge staff’s plan; b) lack of time to fully vet the request to the satisfaction of some of the Task Force members.” 


Shade said she would have a number of questions for the utility when the items come forward Thursday this morning. In an email, she wrote, “I am happy with the budget amendment item on this week’s council agenda as it is a good indication of staff and council’s commitment to do more to support conservation efforts, and specifically to improve outreach. It will take additional time to vet the details, especially when it comes to advertising and outreach activities which is why I look forward to hearing the staff presentation on Thursday and to getting additional input from the Task Force over these next few months.”

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