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Council up late for heated public hearing on water rates, WTP4

Friday, August 27, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

City Council settled in for a late night last night, as community concern over proposed water rate hikes and the construction of the controversial Water Treatment Plant 4 took over a public hearing on the FY2010-2011 proposed budget, a hearing that was still ongoing at press time. 


That hearing was supposed to take place at 4pm but didn’t get rolling until around 9. By that point, dozens of members of the environmental community had been sitting in Council Chambers for most of the day waiting for the opportunity to speak. When they finally did, they didn’t hold back.


Roy Waley, vice chair of the Austin Sierra Club, went right after Council and their apparent time-management difficulties. Playing off the advertised topic of the public hearing Waley joked, “I had budgeted some time between four and six to talk to ya’ll.”


He then turned his attention to WTP4 and the 6.1 percent wage hike the Austin Water Utility is proposing as part of next year’s budget, its eighth in as many years. Calling the four-dollar average monthly increase the straw that will break the camel’s back, Waley asked Council to suspend their plans for WTP4, a move, he said, that would save the city, and Austin water-users, hundreds of millions of dollars.


At 10 o’clock, Mayor Lee Leffingwell, citing Council procedure, asked his colleagues on the dais if they would prefer to stay and listen to the 297 minutes worth of speakers still signed up and awaiting them or end the meeting and begin again in the morning. All four of his colleagues still in attendance (Council members Sheryl Cole and Bill Spelman had left to attend to various family matters), said they would prefer to stay and listen to the concerns of the community. This brought a huge round of applause from the 50 or so citizens in attendance. Cole came back for the hearing later.


That spirit of good cheer didn’t last long, however. When Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, went to the podium to speak, he confronted Leffingwell over the mayor’s repeated assertion that the speakers were technically not adhering to the rules of the public hearing by speaking about the rate hike and WTP4 rather than the budget.


“Mr. Leffingwell, is Water Treatment Plant 4 not a part of the budget?” Bunch asked.


Leffingwell considered for a moment then said, “It is remotely a component, yes.”


At which point Bunch exploded, “A five hundred million dollar plan is remotely part of the budget?”


“Do you want to control yourself or do you want to be removed from the chamber?” Leffingwell asked.


“I would respectfully ask that you not insult the intelligence of this community,” Bunch said, earning the wild applause of those in attendance, “by pretending that Water Treatment Plant 4 is not part of the budget and is not germane to this hearing.”


It was a heated start to what would be a heated speech by Bunch, in which he referred to the WTP4 plant as a “pork-barrel project” similar to Alaska’s infamous “bridge to nowhere.” Before leaving the podium he told the Council that they risked “destroying 20 years of conservation efforts” by going forward with their plans to build WTP4.


This was only the beginning of a very long night. Council was still hearing testimony at 12:40AM.


Earlier in the day Austin Water Utility director Greg Meszaros told In Fact Daily, “We’re over $100 million dollars into the project and that money’s not coming back. So well over 20 percent of the project is already expended. As a matter of fact, a good chunk of the rates that we’re talking about this year (are) to pay for debt service that we’ve issued already for the plant.”


He added, “In addition we have probably $30-35 million of construction contracts under way. You couldn’t just stop those contracts without negotiating with the construction contractors. We have termination clauses that they would be due any liquidated damages or any kind of related activities. The longer that goes…the more expensive it would be to unwind the project.”


Meszaros said that the total figure that it would cost the city to stop the project in the next few weeks could be as much as $125 million.

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